Bear referendum proponents sue Maine wildlife department

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The group fighting to ban bear baiting, trapping and hounding in Maine has filed a lawsuit alleging that the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife acted illegally in its campaign opposing the bear referendum.

Question 1, the referendum to ban the use of bait, traps and dogs to hunt bear in Maine, is slated to be on the Nov. 4 statewide ballot.

Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting filed the lawsuit against DIF&W on Tuesday in Portland. DIF&W has aired a number of online and television campaign ads featuring department biologists and game wardens and its employees have spoken out in public debates, media interviews and material provided on the department’s website.

The lawsuit also alleges that DIF&W failed to respond to requests for public documents filed in March 2013 and May 2014 under the Maine Freedom of Access Act concerning its black bear management program and campaign activities.

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“Basically, the [DIF&W] has mounted a full-scale political campaign that goes well beyond the boundaries of fair comment,” said Katie Hansberry, campaign director for Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting. “To defeat Question 1, they’ve used public funds, property and staff time without the legal authority to do so.”

The lawsuit seeks to force DIF&W to immediately comply with previous Maine Freedom of Access Act requests as well as prohibit the department from any further campaigning against Question 1. It also asks that the court require the department to remove all political content from its website, repay any funds to the state that were used in campaign activities and remove the television ads from the air.

“We are aware of the lawsuit that appears to be politically motivated and designed only to generate headlines,” said DIF&W Commissioner Chandler Woodcock in a prepared statement. “The department will be working closely with the Attorney General’s Office and the Attorney General will be defending the department against the allegations. The department is confident that the State will prevail in this matter. There will be no further comment concerning this suit, as this suit appears to be designed to generate publicity and it is not the standard policy of State agencies to comment on the merits of pending litigation.”

On its website, DIF&W says that the use of bait, dogs and traps in bear hunting is necessary to control the state’s bear population, which has grown by about 30 percent in the past 10 years.

“It’s not about silencing the experts,” Hansberry said. “We do respect the agency’s right to provide factual information to voters, but they’ve repeatedly gone above and beyond that, and it’s time for that to stop.”

The complaint, which is posted on the Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting website, states: “the [DIF&W’s] actions — individually and in the aggregate — cannot reasonably be construed as necessary for the ‘administration and enforcement of the inland fisheries and wildlife laws’ or ‘the management of all inland fish and wildlife’ — [DIF&W’s] sole legislative mandate. Nor can the agency’s actions be construed as merely providing ‘fair comment’ and factual information to voters, which were be permissible under Maine law.”

“To my general understanding, there’s a lack of clarity on the issue,” said Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices. “I think it’s an important issue.”

Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting is a coalition of state and national groups, mainly environmental and animal organizations, and is almost entirely funded by the Humane Society of the United States.

In March 2013 and again in May 2014, the group requested documents from the DIF&W’s bear management program and campaign actions in opposition to Question 1 under the Maine Freedom of Access Act. So far, the group has received only a small percentage of those documents, according to Hansberry. The lawsuit seeks to “direct the agency’s staff to immediately and completely respond” to these Maine Freedom of Access Act requests.

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