Maine Wildlife Biologists' Involvement Key Factor in Defeat of Bear Baiting Ban

Nov 5, 2014

The No on One campaign crunches numbers on election night.
Credit Susan Sharon / MPBN
James Cote
Credit Susan Sharon / MPBN

For the second time in ten years, it appears Maine voters have rejected a referendum that would have prohibited the use of bait, hounds and traps in Maine's annual bear hunt. The campaign was divisive, emotional and involved vast amounts of money, more than double what was spent the last time around. And crucial to opponents' victory was the involvement of wildlife biologists at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

The barrage of bear hunting television advertisements was difficult to watch. With images of bears being chased by dogs, caught in traps and shot at close range, the Yes on One side tried to show what it says is the cruel and unsporting nature of bear hunting.

"You know there's no question that the Yes on One ads and even some of our ads tear at the heartstrings a little bit," says James Cote, spokesman for the opposition campaign. But at the end of the day, he says, Maine voters chose to embrace science over emotion.

And the science came from the state's bear biologists, who maintain that all three hunting methods are essential for managing Maine's growing bear population. "Trust Our Wildlife Biologists" became the slogan of the opposition campaign. Katie Hansberry of Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting says the involvement of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife put her group at a disadvantage.

"It was a very big hurdle to overcome the significant spending and involvement of the state agency, trying to influence the outcome of an election despite the fact that Maine is the only state that still allows and relies upon the three cruel and unsporting practices of bear baiting, hounding and trapping," she says. "It created a lot of confusion for voters."

Proponents brought a legal challenge to the Department's involvement in the campaign but that was unsuccessful. So was a complaint filed with the Maine Ethics Commission. Both sides spent more than $2 million apiece on their campaigns, with Mainers For Fair Bear Hunting raising about $300,000 more than the no side, according to Cote. Most of the money supporting the measure, about 96 percent, came from the Washington D.C.-based Humane Society of the United States, the same group that backed the previous ballot measure, and Cote says that was also a big factor in the outcome.

"You know, who do people really want to trust in this state to manage wildlife, our experts or the outsiders?" he says. "And I think that was a very easy message for us to resonate with the general public."

There are hard feelings on both sides of the debate over bear hunting. Don Helstrum is a bear hunting guide from Medway who says he winced at out-of-state newspaper columnists and others who described his livelihood as unethical and his customers as slobs.

"For someone to say your clients are slobs and you're greedy, you don't sleep well on it," Helstrum says. "If you could win by a big enough margin they might leave you alone."

But leaders of the No On One campaign don't expect that to happen. They say they expect an effort in the Maine Legislature to ban some form of bear hunting as soon as next year. When asked whether he'd be willing to negotiate any aspect of bear hunting, such as the use of hounds or traps that are seldom used in Maine's bear hunt, Don Kleiner of the Maine Professional Guides Association said no.

"From my perspective, that we would even consider negotiating away someone's business in this state at this point, is ludicrous," he says. "I'm not going to negotiate someone's business away. I'm sorry."

Kleiner and other opponents says the hunting community has already agreed to changes in the types of traps that can be used for bears and in the number of hounds that can be used in a chase. Now, they say, they just have to do a better job explaining to the public what these improvements are.