Maine’s bear population was between 21,000 and 23,000 in 2000, but since 2005 it has increased to more than 35,000. Press Herald file photo

Six years after an initiative to ban bear-baiting by hunters was defeated at the polls for a second time, proponents of that effort are taking a new approach, through the state’s rule-making process.

In a virtual public hearing Wednesday, state biologists heard comments on a petition that seeks to establish a bear-baiting season and a limited baiting permit program that would be phased out gradually and eliminated after 2029.

In 2004, a referendum that sought to end three common bear hunting practices in Maine – use of bait, dogs and traps – was defeated 53 percent to 47 percent. In 2014, a similar referendum was defeated 52 percent to 48 percent.

In the hour-long hearing Wednesday held by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, 13 people testified against the petition and four supported it, including John Glowa of China, who submitted the petition. IFW has received over 200 comments on the proposal since the petition was submitted.

Specifically, the petition asks IFW to make the following changes to rules governing bear hunting in Maine.

• Hunters would have to obtain permits for bear-baiting sites and provide GPS coordinates for the sites on the permit.

• The use of food that is toxic or harmful to bears would be banned – the petition lists chocolate and refined sugar as examples.

• Starting in 2021, the number of bear feeding permits issued would be reduced by 10 percent each year until 2029.

• After 2029, hunters could still “bait” bears using scent baits and physical attractants, e.g shiny objects, but not with food. Use of scents and objects would not require a permit.

Proponents said changing bear-baiting laws would help decrease the bear population, an IFW goal in its Big Game Management Plan released in 2018. According to the plan, Maine’s bear population was between 21,000 and 23,000 in 2000, but since 2005 has increased to more than 35,000.

“In 2004, IFW told the public that without bear-baiting, the bear population would explode,” Glowa said. “Here we are 16 years later, bear-baiting continues, and there are bears on playgrounds and in cities. It has exploded.”

Gina Garey, a certified animal behaviorist in Portland who helped collect petition signatures, said IFW had the opportunity to address the “explosion in the bear population” as it prepared the big game plan, but it failed to do so.

“They chose to ignore the science and do nothing, rather than eliminate human food in hunting methods,” Garey said.

Katie Hansberry, the Maine director of the Humane Society of the United States, the lead proponent of the 2014 referendum, said there is scientific evidence that human food leads to increases in black bear populations and creates nuisance bears. Proponents say bear-baiting leads to population increases because it adds to the food supply.

“Phasing out baiting, rather than increasing hunting, is a more effective way to reduce the bear population,” Hansberry said.

But some hunters at the hearing said that without baiting – which accounts for three-quarters of the bear harvest annually, according to IFW – hunters would never see a black bear.

“I am stealth,” said Dennis Corriveau, a Maine hunter of 40 years. “I have yet to see a bear when I’m out hunting. They are known as ‘the ghosts of the woods’ for a reason.”

Some said shooting bears as they eat bait is more ethical, because it allows hunters to shoot from close range, reducing the chance of the animal being wounded and escaping. And several suggested that managing Maine’s growing black bear population should be left to state biologists.

Hunter Matthew Gray said that in coastal Hancock County, where he lives, animal control workers who trap nuisance bears around blueberry fields and bee hives must use bait to do it.

“If you take away bait, you will have more human conflicts with bears, the bears will be in towns, they’ll be in houses,” Gray said.

This year, IFW contracted with Purdue University to do a study of the effects of supplemental feeding on Maine’s black bear population, but the report is not expected for several months.

Glowa said that if IFW ignores the problems caused by baiting, the department will face a third hunting referendum.

In 2014, Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, the group that sought to ban the use of bait, dogs and traps by bear hunters, raised more than $1.4 million in campaign funds, with a large percentage (at least 96 percent through September 2014) coming from Washington, D.C., home of the Humane Society, according to the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.

The coalition of groups campaigning against the referendum raised $2.4 million, with at least 43 percent coming from Maine donors a month before voters cast ballots.

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