The bear referendum is over, and as one who was active in that campaign (on the side of the bears) I would like to offer my perspective and perhaps correct a few misconceptions.
For instance, it was thought by some that the Humane Society of the United States was being emotional and deceptive to run television ads of a bear cub being attacked by more dogs than the six legally allowed. Those were not staged videos; what was shown is what happened — evidence that whatever the law may prohibit, these obscenities still occur.
Emotional to watch? Absolutely. Cruelty always is, but let’s not blame HSUS for it. And when we’re being shown actual footage of dogs chasing a bear (or any other creature that happens by) to exhaustion and then tearing it to pieces or driving it up a tree so it can be shot, one would have to ask — where’s the deception?
Sadly, that is what the so-called “sport” of hounding is all about.
I’d also heard (more than once) that HSUS was trying to tell Mainers what to do, but that overlooks the undeniable fact that nearly 78,000 Mainers signed the petition to put the referendum on the ballot, and more than 278,000 of our citizens voted for it.
Those people were not duped or manipulated by some malevolent out-of-state entity. The only reason HSUS and a coalition of hunters, veterinarians, animal shelters and anti-cruelty organizations such as the ASPCA joined forces is because the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the legislative committee that provides oversight, and legislators in general are controlled by the state’s powerful hunting and trapping lobby, whose influence is far greater than its numbers would suggest.
HSUS and the many citizens who voted for the referendum only did what state government had consistently failed to do — they tried to end cruelty.
It has been said that urban supporters of the referendum were persuaded by appeals to emotion because they had no first-hand experience with bears. That raises the question — how much experience with bears does anyone need to recognize the brutality of an animal being hounded to exhaustion or caught in a trap, often in pain and fearing for its life, and then executed at point blank range?
It is what happens, and is one of the practices the referendum tried to end.
Another campaign issue was the focus on HSUS providing major funding for the referendum. The reason was simple economics. Mainers who supported the referendum simply did not have the financial resources available to fight the state’s powerful hunting and trapping lobby and so had to rely on outside funding to bear the very expensive cost of a campaign. That doesn’t mean their convictions were less strong; it just means their pockets weren’t as well lined.
And let’s not forget that the opposition was also heavily financed by out-of-state money. A small sample from public records runs the gamut from the National Rifle Association to Safari International to the Washington, D.C.-based Ballot Issues Coalition to trapping and hounding associations from Wisconsin to Texas and points in between, with amounts totaling many thousands of dollars.
One big difference is that referendum opponents sought to maintain the status quo of baiting, hounding and trapping and thereby continue the licensing fees they generate and the revenue stream they produce. HSUS had no financial motive to support the referendum; its goal was to end the suffering of animals, something it has been doing nationwide ever since it was founded in 1954.
Throughout the campaign, we were urged to “trust our wildlife biologists,” but science needs to be objective, not beholden.
We all saw the blatant partisan role that Maine’s Department of IF&W played in the bear referendum, siding, as per usual, with the hunting lobby it consistently supports, and blitzing the airways with uniformed personnel using scare tactics, all on company time and with the use of public resources.
If hounding and trapping are ever banned and there is no hard evidence to support IF&W’s claim that as many as 4,500 additional bears would need to be destroyed each year, perhaps we could just kill fewer of them. If their numbers have to be reduced, however, let us do it with skill and experience, not with the cruelty that masquerades as wildlife management.
That will also allow the true sportsmanship of fair chase hunting to be restored — a tradition of which Maine used to be justifiably proud.
Don Loprieno has served on the boards of the Boothbay Region Humane Society, the Maine Friends of Animals, and the Wildlife Alliance of Maine. He is a resident of Bristol.