AUGUSTA, Maine - Less than a year after Maine voters rejected prohibitions on the use of traps and dogs to hunt bear, Democrats in the Maine Legislature are pushing two bills that would do just that.
At a public hearing before the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife committee, opponents questioned why the bills were even being proposed, after voters had already spoken. But supporters of the measures say the defeat of last fall's referendum doesn't change the fact that hounding and trapping amount to animal cruelty and should be outlawed.
One of the bills before the committee is being sponsored by Rep. Dillon Bates. The measure would outlaw the use of dogs to hunt bear in Maine. Hunters caught violating the law would initially be charged a Class D offense under the state's criminal statutes. Violating the law three or more times would result in a Class C charge.
After introducing his bill, Bates listened asskeptical Republicans on the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee peppered him with questions.
"Representative Bates, do you, by any chance, have a hunting and fishing license?" asked GOP Rep. Peter Lyford, of Eddington.
"I do have a fishing license," Bates, a freshman Democrat from Westbrook responded. "I don't currently possess a hunting license. I have gone hunting before, but not this year."
Minutes later, Rep. Stephen Wood, of Greene, cut to the question that was on the minds of many on the committee. "I just heard you say we need to take away this process. I believe 53 percent of the voters in Maine voted against this. How do you justify, seeing that you think we need to do away with hounding?"
"This is a contentious issue. The court of public opinion has completely spoken on it."
Last fall, after a combative and hard-fought campaign, Maine voters defeated Question 1, a ballot measure that would have banned bear hunting with hounds, traps and bait. But Bates says having this issue end in the hands of voters in the first place is reason enough for lawmakers to finally take it up themselves.
As part of his testimony before the committee, Bates read from an editorial last fall in the Portland Press Herald, urging readers to vote against Question 1.
" 'The referendum has aroused deep reactions from Mainers who are offended by hunting practices that seem to be unfair and brutal. Unfortunately, these concerns were raised 10 years ago, when this referendum was first put before Maine voters. Since then, several legislators have avoided addressing this complicated emotional issue, which is why it's on the ballot again this year. Mainers should vote 'no' on Question 1 and then push their legislators to do their jobs and create a balanced, wildlife management plan for the state.' "
Bates says his bill finally gives lawmakers an opportunity to do this. A second measure before the committee, meantime, would also ban hounding, as well as trapping bear in anything other than nuisance situations.
"Hounding bears is scientifically indefensible, cruel and unsporting," said Katie Hansberry, who runs the Maine chapter of the Humane Society of the United States. Hansberry and her group led last year's failed push to pass Question 1.
Trapping, Hansberry told lawmakers on the committee, is just as scientifically indefensible, cruel and unsporting as hounding. "Maine permits leg hold snares, which shackle the bear to the tree. These traps capture and hold the animal 'til the trapper comes to shoot the bear at close range, which is not fair chase hunting. Maine is the only state to permit statewide bear trapping for sport."
Opponents of last fall's referendum frequently attacked the Yes on 1 campaign for its ties to the southern part of the state, where hunting isn't as big a part of daily life as it is in western, central, northern and Downeast Maine.
Noting this dynamic, Rep. Wood proposed the following compromise to Hansberry and other supporters of the two bills before the committee: "So, if we eliminated trapping bear in southern Maine, where most of the support of doing away with trapping is, would you agree to that?"
"No," Hansberry replied, noting that her group continues to believe there is widespread support statewide for banning both trapping an hounding.