August 25, 2013

Maine's bear hunting practices back in the crosshairs

Almost 10 years after failing to abolish baiting and other methods, animal-welfare activists want to revisit the debate: Are these cruel or are they viable wildlife management tools?

By Deirdre Fleming
Staff Writer

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A black bear walks past an empty bait barrel in the Moose River Valley of the Jackman area of Maine during the 2010 hunting season. Bait barrels hold trail mix made of raisins, dried fruit and nuts, granola and doughnuts, said Steve Beckwith, a longtime Maine hunter and hunting guide. Opponents of bear baiting are seeking to ban the practice, saying it’s cruel and gives hunters an unfair advantage.

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The Animal Welfare Society in West Kennebunk, one of Maine's three largest animal rescue centers, signed on as a supporter of the initiative because the society's board of directors felt the hunting methods in question are inhumane.

"We're not against hunting," said Steve Jacobsen, the shelter's director for 19 years. "We live in a state that has a number of sportsmen. We want to be respectful of Maine. But I think there is a real distinction there. There is just something inherently unfair about baiting."

The Humane Society has had success on bear-hunting ballot measures in several other states, and Hansberry said proponents of a ban in Maine will draw on that experience.

"We've had essentially a 70 percent win rate. That is on a range and whole host of issues. But that's the percentage of passage," said Nicole Paquette, the Humane Society's vice president of wildlife protection in Washington, D.C.

Efforts to ban one or more of the three bear-hunting practices were successful in Colorado in 1992, in Oregon in 1994 and Washinton state in 1996 .

But similar efforts were rejected in Idaho and Michigan in 1996, and in Alaska in 2004.

Daryl Dejoy, who formed the Wildlife Alliance of Maine in Bangor in support of the 2004 referendum, called the involvement of a national group such as the Humane Society "motivating."

"A referendum is a very daunting undertaking," said Dejoy, who grew up a hunter. "And in the same way that our opponents (in Maine) defended against the referendum with the national sportsman's alliance and national trappers association (in 2004), we need help from a national group, as well.

"We are motivated by a desire to see Maine looked upon as a good hunting state," he said.


Sportsmen and guides argue that Maine's dense forests make it difficult to hunt bears, and that the population would explode without using the most efficient hunting practices, a premise supported by state biologists during the 2004 campaign.

Biologists have said the bear population has reached historically high numbers -- as many as 30,000 statewide -- and failing to keep the population in check will lead to widespread conflicts between bears and people both in the woods and in developed areas.

"I think what the referendum will do is blow that good management plan that the state has with bears," Trahan said. He also pointed out that the bear population exploded in the 1950s, despite the fact that the state paid a $5 bounty for each bear killed. Even with the controversial hunting practices allowed, state biologists have estimated the population has grown substantially since a decade ago, when it was estimated to be about 23,000.

Two years ago, when bear nuisance complaints increased dramatically across the Northeast after an unusually mild winter, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife reported that complaints in Maine increased from around 500 to more than 800.


Sportsmen and guides, many of whom rely on hunting for their livelihood, say Maine residents will regret it if the hunting-practices ban is approved.

A bear guide since 1964, Wayne Bosowitz is considered by some the "granddaddy" of black bear hunting in Maine. Over nearly 50 years, he built a successful bear guiding business in northern Maine and Ontario.

But Bosowitz, now 69 and close to retirement, said he told his son not to follow him into the family business.

He fears bear hunting will come to an end in Maine if the ballot effort succeeds, and told his son to take a job that came up out West. Bosowitz feels the hunting-practices ban has a better chance this time because more money will be spent.

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Additional Photos

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These three photographs of a black bear at a bait bucket were captured by a hunter’s trail camera in 2008. Maine hunters and guides call the practice an efficient way to bag bears in a densely forested state.

Photos courtesy Days Bear Bait in Alfred

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A black bear nibbles on some meat near Greenville. A coalition led by the Maine chapter of the Humane Society of the United States aims to collect as many as 80,000 signatures next month to get a referendum question on bear-hunting practices on Maine’s 2014 ballot.

1998 file photo/The Associated Press

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Katie Hansberry of the Maine chapter of the Humane Society hands out pamphlets at the farmers market in Portland’s Deering Oaks park Saturday. Animal-welfare advocates want to ban three bear-hunting methods: baiting; using dogs; and using snare traps.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer


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