According to the polls, the vote on Question 1 in Maine is very close, with reputable polling showing the race a dead heat. The good news is, there appears to be a clear majority of people who want to ban baiting, hounding, and trapping of bears, and once they sort out that a “yes” vote protects the bears, we should prevail.
But it’s certainly been a challenging campaign, largely because of the underhanded and overreaching tactics of the opponents who have spent nearly $3 million and drawn support from the Safari Club International in Arizona, the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance in Ohio, the NRA in Virginia, and the Ballot Issues Coalition in Washington, D.C., along with state trapping and hounding associations from throughout the country. (Not a single paper in the state that I’ve seen – even those that oppose the ballot measure -- has defended hounding or trapping of bears. Opinion leaders throughout the state agree that hounding and trapping for bears are grossly inhumane, even if they are skeptical of banning baiting.) They’ve also gotten a huge assist from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IF&W), which has been sending personnel all around the state to campaign against the measure, built a website to oppose Question 1, and used its wide array of resources to preserve the set of inhumane and unsporting bear hunting methods they favor in the state.
I was in Maine this week, and I saw two ads run by the opponents of Question 1 – one featuring footage of a woman in Florida recounting how a bear attacked her in a suburb of Orlando, and the other showing three uniformed state employees with IF&W telling people to vote “no”. In today’s Bangor Daily News, the state’s largest paper, the editorial board called it “dishonest” and said “[T]he campaign urging a ‘no’ vote on Question 1 is playing to voters’ fears, the lowest common denominator in campaigns.”
The Bangor paper said the “comparison to Florida is invalid,” noting that the demographics of Florida and Maine are entirely different and that bears strain to avoid humans. There has never been an attack by a black bear on a person in Maine, and as the editors observed, “between 1900 and 2009, there were just 14 fatal black bear attacks in the lower 48 states, according to a 2011 research article published in the Journal of Wildlife Management.”
In the incident from Florida – which has of course no relevance to banning cruel and reckless methods of bear hunting in Maine – “the neighbor of a Lake Mary woman mauled by a black bear is among three Seminole County residents charged by state wildlife officers with illegally feeding bears,” according to the Orlando Sentinel. The bear walked into the open garage of the victim because there was an open trash can there. A wildlife biologist with the Florida wildlife agency said bears were "unusually food conditioned and highly habituated," making the animals dangerous to humans.
Well, that’s precisely what we’re trying to stop in Maine -- the conditioning of the bears to human food sources. And no state is more reckless or extreme than Maine in allowing feeding of bears. It’s estimated that bear baiting guides and other baiters put out 7 million pounds of junk food every year for bears, during a critical food-gathering period for the bears.
In a recent op-ed, George Smith, the former director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine and the guy who led the fight against a similar initiative a decade ago, concedes that "you do not need to be scared of bears. I will admit that scaring you about bears was an important part of our strategy in 2004, and remains a powerful issue for those opposing the referendum. If you see a bear in the woods, you are most likely to see its rear end as it flees. I have had quite a few encounters with bears in the woods and never had a problem." (Kennebec Journal, October 14, 2014.)
Even Bangor Daily News hunting columnist John Holyoke, a staunch opponent of the ballot initiative, has written about this false safety issue. "The more alarmist among them [referendum opponents] have suggested that bears will attack people, eat their babies and terrorize us all," he wrote earlier this year. "That's just hyperbole, and has no place in the upcoming debate." (Bangor Daily News, January 31, 2014.)
Ironically, in the other ad, where the three state biologists urge a “no” vote on Question 1, they tell viewers that banning these hunting methods will pose a "serious threat to public safety." But in an email released under court order last week, one of those same biologists – a bear baiter and trapper named Randy Cross -- admits in an e-mail exchange unrelated to the advertising, "I think your fear of bears is exaggerated and is not rational...Since there has not been an unprovoked bear attack in the history of white settlement in Maine, it is not a realistic threat."
Beyond the deception and the stoking of unfounded fears, there’s also the issue of the state spending tens of thousands of dollars to influence an election. We have a federal Hatch Act to prevent public employees from influencing elections. And many states, though not Maine, have explicit prohibitions on that conduct. The Bangor Daily News called for an outright ban on politicking by public agency personnel in ballot initiative campaigns. Do we want government agencies, of all kinds and on all sorts of issues, telling us how to vote and then leading campaigns to drive their desired outcomes?
The Bangor Daily News closed its editorial with a simple and correct statement: “Advocating for a ‘no’ vote based on fear is dishonest, and doing so with public resources compounds the wrong.”
Paid for with regulated funds by the committee of Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, PO Box 15367, Portland, ME 04112.