By Gerry Lavigne
Recent ads placed by proponents of Question 1 claim that baiting for black bears by Maine hunters alters bear behavior and leads to nuisance problems. They cite no direct evidence for this claim. Rather, there are some compelling biological reasons why this claim is false.
Bear baiting is strictly regulated. Hunters are required to obtain a baiting permit from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (DIFW). Bait hunters must obtain landowner permission to place baits. Many timber companies also require permits for bear baiting, and they regulate the distribution of bait sites.
These sites must be marked with the baiter’s identification. Bait sites must be at least 50 yards from any road, and they must be at least 500 yards from any occupied dwelling, unless landowner permission is granted. Bait placed at these sites must be free of debris like wrappers and plastic bags; otherwise it constitutes littering. All bait sites must be free of human traces (tree stands, flagging, barrels, etc.) by Nov. 10 annually. Maine game wardens strictly enforce these regulations.
The majority of bear baiting sites are located in primary bear range, which comprises the heavily wooded northern half of Maine. Little bear baiting occurs anywhere near human habitation. Most bears targeted by baiting do not live near residential areas, even in rural areas.
Bears are not capable of associating baits with other human food sources. Have you ever been in line at a donut shop and seen a bear waiting in line behind you?
All a bear knows is that an appealing food suddenly appears within its home range in August and September. The bear exploits this food source like any natural food source that nature provides, like berries, acorns or beechnuts. Unless a bear already lives among people, it is incapable of searching out human habitation for this food. They will continue to search out the bait site for food only in the place where it was originally found. In short, bears learn from past experience, not from cognitive thought, as humans do.
One of the most compelling factors preventing bears from becoming junk food addicts is fear of humans. Hunting in general and bait hunting in particular reinforce a healthy fear of humans among bears and all sorts of dangerous animals, including wolves, coyotes and mountain lions. In Maine, bears have been hunted for a long time. Our bears are naturally wary of human scent, and there is plenty of it at bait sites. Bear cubs are taught to fear proximity to man. There may be several bears in the proximity of any given bait site. They quickly learn the sound of a rifle shot, and all the human commotion that ensues. Miss a bear, and that bear instantly becomes “educated” to fear humans. And some bears live a long time,up to 30 years. Moreover, a bear that comes to the bait a bit too eagerly doesn’t live long enough to learn from its mistake.
Fear of encounters with man keeps bears out of your backyard.
What drives the nuisance bear problem is loss of fear of man. This occurs over time wherever hunting is outlawed over large areas. At a more local scale, when hunger drives bears into human neighborhoods and these bears are allowed to feed at bird feeders, gardens, pet food or unsecured garbage containers without any negative consequences, marauding bears will habituate to this easy food source. In time, repeated experiences of “getting away” with foraging around people will cause bears to relax around people, exactly the opposite behavior that hunting elicits.
Hunting and trapping minimizes nuisance bear problems by reinforcing wariness and keeping their populations in balance with natural food sources. Please vote NO on Question 1.
Gerry Lavigne is a former Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife deer biologist. He now works as a consultant and writes for the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.