Let’s stop feeding the bears

By Jennifer Skiff

On Nov. 4, the first question on the referendum ballot will be “Do you want to ban the use of bait, dogs or traps in bear hunting except to protect property, public safety, or for research?” Here’s why I’ll be voting “yes” on 1.

When I was a little girl, my grandfather explained to me what happened to a bear when it was caught in a leg trap. He explained that the animal would become so terrified, all the time suffering from intense pain, that it would sometimes chew its own foot off to escape. It was incomprehensible to me to learn that people would intentionally inflict cruel and unnecessary suffering on an animal.

Fifty years later, sadly, Maine is the only state in the United States that allows trapping for sport – the only state left. In fact, Maine is the only state that permits all three barbaric practices of baiting, hounding and trapping. Many Maine hunters will tell you they’re disgusted by baiting and would never do it. Here’s why. Baiting started in the 1970’s as a way to all but guarantee a kill, especially for guides who had fee-paying clients fly in from other states. Today a small group of trophy-hunting guides dump seven million pounds of junk food – donuts, pizza and rancid grease – into our beautiful woods for a period of eight weeks at bait sites. Bears, who love donuts, like many of us do, go to the sites and wait for their daily “dose of Dunkins.” And then, one day, their server brings a client with a gun who shoots the bear at close range.

There’s nothing traditional about bear baiting, and it’s not considered fair chase by any responsible woodsman.

The modern day hounding of bears with dogs is a far cry from the times when our grandfathers took a walk in the woods with their favorite dog, and is nothing like using dogs to flush or retrieve birds.

Packs of dogs are now fitted with tracking devices and set loose while someone follows them with a handheld GPS device. It’s kind of like playing a video game in the woods. The end comes to an exhausted and frightened bear when it’s shot out of a tree and brutally set upon by the dogs until it gets another bullet.

In the instance where it doesn’t make it up a tree, it’s surrounded and is forced to fight for its life, and often the life of its cubs, against a pack of frenzied dogs. The end result is death for the bear and sometimes the dogs.

That’s why veterinarians in Maine are asking you to end bear hounding. They are the ones who have to sew the dogs back up again. Animal shelters throughout the state, including the SPCA of Hancock County, the Southwest Harbor Animal Welfare Shelter and The Ark Animal Shelter, are also asking you to vote YES on Question 1 to end hounding as well as trapping and baiting. That’s because these nonprofit organizations get the dogs when they’re lost, or abandoned at the end of the season. It’s also because they are our local experts on issues related to animal welfare.

Some say that if we put an end to bear baiting, hounding and trapping, our bear population will increase and the bears will start attacking us. These are some of the same people who are feeding our bears junk food and growing the population.

According to wildlife biologists, baiting increases reproduction rates. Since 1975, when bear baiting started as a method of harvest, the bear population has steadily grown. That’s because the bears have been conditioned to human food.

Common sense says to stop feeding the bears. Statistics from other states say the same thing.

Twenty years ago, Washington, Colorado and Oregon prohibited hounding and baiting. The result was the stabilization of their bear populations. Additionally, the sale of bear hunting licenses increased dramatically, creating more revenue for the states. It’s been proven in these states and many others that responsible and humane bear management works.

Most of you know where my heart lies on issues regarding the needless suffering of animals. There’s no place in our world for cruelty. It’s easy to turn away from an issue like this, not wanting to know what really happens in our woods.

Maine is the only state that allows this terrible stacking of the deck against bears. I ask you please to vote on this issue with your conscience and common sense. You and I have a chance to stop it by voting for animal welfare and responsible hunting by saying “yes” to Question 1.

Jennifer Skiff is a Trustee of the SPCA of Hancock County and is the author of “The Divinity of Dogs.” She is on the steering committee for Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting.

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