Two groups maintain that three hunting practices are cruel.

BANGOR (AP) – The Humane Society and Maine Friends of Animals are laying the groundwork for a statewide referendum drive to change the way bears are hunted in Maine.

Representative of the groups held public meetings this week in Bangor and Falmouth for a referendum in November 2004 to ban bear baiting, hunting bear with dogs and the use of bear traps in Maine.

They have formed a political action committee called Maine Citizens for Fair Bear Hunting. The coalition must collect 51,000 signatures by early next year to get its referendum on the 2004 ballot.

Bob Fisk, founder of Maine Friends of Animals, which claims 800 members, assured people in Bangor that the groups have no interest in an outright ban on the state’s $12 million black bear hunt.

“We’re not against hunting,” Fisk said. “We just think that these three cruel practices should be outlawed. Maine hunting as a tradition is being demeaned.”

Bear baiting is the practice of luring a bear to a feeding station with stale pastries, molasses, honey or meat for several weeks in late August so that a concealed hunter can shoot the feeding bear when the season opens in September.

Critics say bear baiting is cowardly and unfair.

But bear hunters, guides and even the state’s bear biologist, Randy Cross, believe the practice is necessary to control the size of the bear population. Maine’s thick forest and black bears’ natural reclusiveness make the animals difficult to hunt.

“The end of the bait hunt in Maine is the end of bear management in Maine,” Cross said Tuesday.

Maine’s bear population is estimated at 23,000. Last year, most of the nearly 4,000 killed during the fall season were shot over bait, according to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Fewer than 100 were trapped, about 400 were taken by hunters using dogs, and perhaps a few hundred were killed by unaided hunters.

Some people eat bear meat, but the sport is primarily a trophy hunt in which hunters often pay more than $1,000 to hire a guide. More than 80 percent of bear hunters are from other states.

Cross predicted that a baiting ban would result in an initial population boom, then widespread starvation and an increase in nuisance bears, which wander into towns looking for food.

Fisk argued that hunting would continue as it has in other states where baiting has been banned, and there would be no management problem.

More than half of the states allow bear hunting, but only nine permit baiting. Maine is alone in allowing the use of traps, Fisk said.

Several other national organizations have joined the Humane Society’s effort. They include the Fund for Animals and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The Humane Society has never lost a referendum battle over bear baiting. In recent years, bans have been passed in Colorado, Oregon, Massachusetts and Washington. Efforts led by other wildlife groups in Michigan and Idaho have failed, however.

The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine is expected to lead the battle against the referendum, even though its own polls indicate that the hunting community is divided on the baiting issue.

In other states that have tackled bear baiting, the National Rifle Association has provided substantial funding.

Maine Friends of Animals has twice introduced legislation to ban bear baiting and hunting with hounds, but the bills have been killed by the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee.

AP-ES-04-23-03 1027EDT

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