PORTLAND — The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife may advocate for the defeat of a ballot question that asks voters to change the way bears are hunted in Maine, a Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday.
Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler rejected an injunction request filed by Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting. The group, which supports Question 1, filed a lawsuit in September in Cumberland County Superior Court that asked the judge to order the department to remove all political content from its website, repay any funds to the state that were used in campaign activities and remove television ads featuring DIF&W staff from the air.
Question 1 on the Nov. 4 ballot will ask voters: “Do you want to ban the use of bait, dogs or traps in bear hunting except to protect property, public safety or for research?”
Wheeler held a hearing Friday on pending motions in the lawsuit.
“Restricting speech on contested public issues is directly contrary to the public interest, which favors a robust and dynamic public discourse,” Wheeler said in her 15-page decision. “It is [for] the voters, not the plaintiffs or the courts, to assess the relative merits of conflicting speech.
“The public interest would be adversely affected if plaintiffs’ request for a temporary restraining order were granted when DIF&W’s speech is on topics squarely within ‘its competence as governor’” of statutory directives from the Legislature.
Wheeler said that DIF&W is “mandated to ‘encourage the wise use of [wildlife] resources.’ Thus, DIF&W is statutorily required ‘to attempt to persuade’ the public to make wise use of these resources, or to make wise use ‘more appealing or more likely to happen.’”
Timothy Feeley, spokesman for the Maine attorney general’s office, called Wheeler’s decision “a victory for Free Speech.”
Lawyers in the attorney general’s office defended the department in court.
James Cote, campaign manager for the Save Maine’s Bear Hunt/NO on 1 Campaign, criticized the organizations that worked to put Question 1 on the ballot.
“Outside anti-hunting groups have not been content to pour millions into Maine to buy this election,” he said in a news release issued Wednesday evening. “They frivolously sued the state of Maine to stop the only actual bear experts involved in this campaign from telling the public the truth. Today the court completely rejected their argument and fully supported Maine’s biologists’ and game wardens’ ability to make sure that voters know the risks behind Question 1.”
Katie Hansberry, director of Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, criticized Wheeler’s decision.
“Our government shouldn’t be telling us how to vote,” she said in a news release. “At the very minimum, they should be transparent and disclose the full extent of their politicking to the public. We are pleased that the court ordered the agency to disclose its political activities, and that IF&W has promised not to spend any more money campaigning before the election, but we intend to continue this lawsuit and to hold them to their promises.”
Hansberry said information that Wheeler ordered last week be made public about the department’s involvement in the campaign showed that DIF&W has spent “upward of $10,000 of public money on campaign materials, sent staff to a media training program organized by the opposition committee, and coordinated their campaigning closely with Cote.”
“The new records show that even IF&W biologists know that their own scare tactics about bears are overreaching,” Hansberry said. “Maine voters should vote yes on Question 1 on Nov. 4 to stop these scare tactics and to stop animal cruelty.”
It was unclear late Wednesday what impact, if any, Wheeler’s decision would have on the campaign to defeat Question 1.
Just before Friday’s hearing, DIF&W announced that it would expend no “additional funds or resources” to campaign against the referendum.