AUGUSTA — Weeks after animal rights groups announced that they would seek a referendum that would ban hunting bears with hounds, traps or over bait, those who support the state’s bear hunting status quo unveiled their own coalition on Monday during a press conference outside the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife office.
All three official gubernatorial candidates for the 2014 election, six candidates for Maine’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, more than 20 organizations and labor unions, and nearly 80 sitting Maine senators and representatives from both sides of the political aisle support the existing hunt and defend its role as a management tool.
“Just as we were asked 10 years ago (during a failed referendum attempt), once again Maine voters are being asked, ‘Who should be entrusted with the care of Maine’s wildlife?’” said Chandler E. Woodcock, commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “Please make no mistake. This is not about hunting methods, but a referendum on how we manage and control wildlife in this state.”
Woodcock said Gov. Paul LePage is among those who oppose the proposed referendum, which is expected to be on the November 2014 ballot. According to Woodcock, both he and LePage expect Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologists to play a key role in the debate.
“It would be foolhardy for the people of Maine to remove some of the best biologists in the country from the opportunity to manage this species, and we appreciate the opportunity,” Woodcock said. “Our biologists have full permission from myself and from the governor to involve themselves in the biology of the question, and it’s critical. Last time, the referendum was defeated because of the biology and the management.”
Over the summer, citing the failure of Maine’s legislature to take any action that would change the way bears are hunted in the state, the Humane Society of the United States and other groups banded together to propose another referendum. The resulting group, Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, says that the state’s practices are cruel and unsporting.
Woodcock dismissed those claims.
“Hunting and trapping are the primary tools for controlling the size of wildlife populations, and this proposed referendum would seriously compromise our ability to control the bear population by eliminating our most effective tools,” Woodcock said. “This referendum is not about one method over another. It is about outlawing the most effective methods we have for controlling the bear population. These methods account for over 90 percent of our bear kill annually.”
Late last week, referendum opponents announced the formation of the Maine Wildlife Conservation Council and the hiring of James Cote as its coordinator.
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said that efforts to defeat the proposed referendum are far ahead of similar efforts made a decade ago. He praised the willingness of politicians, business owners, and sportsmen and women to step forward and share their opinions.
Trahan blamed the Humane Society of the United States for the referendum effort and pledged support for the state’s wildlife biologists. Trahan also told the assembled crowd that an uncontrolled bear population could create hazards for people and would have economic impacts on parts of the state that are already struggling.
“The proposed referendum threatens rural economies and our hunting heritage and undermines the expertise of our tremendous biologists at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife,” Trahan said.
Don Kleiner, the executive director of the Maine Professional Guides Association, said the annual bear hunt is an essential economic engine that his membership depend upon.
“For many of our members, Maine’s bear hunt is a critical component of their livelihood,” Kleiner said. “Bear hunting brings jobs and income to a hard-pressed rural economy. In 2004, when an almost identical referendum was proposed to Maine voters, we learned that the state could lose between 563 and 770 existing jobs if the question were to pass. We also learned that up to $62.4 million in average annual economic activity could be lost, and almost half of the bear guides in Maine would have to close their businesses.”