Hunting heritage

Whether Maine should ban baiting, hounding and leg-hold traps in the hunting of bear will come before voters for the second time in a decade in Question 1 of the Nov. 4 general election ballot. In 2004, the same proposal was defeated after emotional campaigns conducted by both proponents and opponents in a vote of 53 to 47 percent. The emotions are every bit as intense this time around.

What is different this time is the overt involvement of state government – the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife – in opposing the ban. Uniformed department personnel have appeared in state-sanctioned advertisements calling for a “no” vote and playing on public fears that the elimination of baiting, hounding and leg-traps will result in an explosion of the bear population and put the public at risk. Whether the department’s advocacy rises to an unlawful level has not yet been determined, but it represents a major departure from state agencies’ fundamental duty to await the will of the people and implement any policy changes accordingly.

Many of the ban opponents have contended that the ban is the first step in a campaign to outlaw the state’s entire hunting tradition, a tradition that transcends generations and is supported by a majority of Mainers. Recent history in other states where similar bans have been enacted suggests otherwise. Equally disingenuous is the suggestion that placing 7 million pounds of junk food in rotting piles at bait sites does not contribute to an increase in the bear population and a taste for human food that, in itself, could lead to increased bear interaction with humans.

The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife contends that baiting is a primary tool in its management of Maine’s bear population. But bagging a bear by blasting away from a tree stand when an animal, accustomed to eating stale doughnuts, bread and other food, returns for more, hardly qualifies as hunting. Is it wildlife management? Or farming? Perhaps. But that bears little or no resemblance to the fair chase involved in the hunting of other Maine wildlife.

Proponents and opponents of the ban have staked out their positions at extreme ends of the controversy. The answer lies somewhere in the middle. Voters should make up their minds based on what they believe is fair to hunters, bears and the public, what they regard as humane, and what they believe comports with the true spirit of Maine’s hunting heritage.