AUGUSTA – A group calling for an end to hunting bears by using bait, traps or dogs took a major step Wednesday toward forcing a public vote on the issue as it submitted more than 100,000 voters’ signatures to state election officials.

Maine Citizens for Fair Bear Hunting also claimed support from seasoned hunters as well as humane-treatment activists in calling for passage of a bill to end what they consider cruel, unsportsmanlike and unnecessary hunting techniques.

Bill Randall of Winthrop, a longtime hunter and guide who supports the proposal, said he was ashamed to have baited bear in the past.

“Hunting bear with a human-placed, unnatural bait does not measure up to the hunting standards that we employ in the hunting of all other Maine wildlife,” Randall said.

The Maine Citizens’ group arrived at the secretary of state’s office with cartons containing what it called a record 102,500 voters’ signatures, more than twice the number that must be certified to force a statewide vote next November.

Bear referendum supporters, seeking to head off criticism by their opponents, distanced themselves from “animal rights” activists and stressed their Maine roots and acceptance of hunting.

Maine Master Guide Cecil Gray of Bingham called shooting bears over makeshift dumps of doughnuts and garbage “a disgusting excuse for game management” that “goes against the definition of hunting itself.”

Gray also described as “below ethics” the practice of chasing bears with dogs using tracking collars and shooting the treed prey. And shooting a bear after it has been snared in a trap is “outright cowardly,” Gray said.

The citizens’ group said hundreds of volunteers – none off them hired petitioners – collected the signatures from the late summer through Election Day. Many of the signers, it said, were hunters.

Group spokesman Robert Fisk Jr. said initiative supporters have raised $184,000 so far, but anticipate raising $1 million throughout the campaign.

Fisk said the initiative was prompted by the Legislature’s rejection in the past of bills to end baiting, trapping and hounding. He said the effort was not imported to Maine by national humane groups, although it welcomes their support.

The Humane Society of the United States, The Fund for Animals and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are supporting the bear referendum.

Referendum opponents, who have formed Maine’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council, have raised about $250,000 so far to fight what they see as a threat to Maine’s traditional hunting and fishing heritage, said campaign manager Edie Leary.

“To use the ballot box to dictate wildlife management in Maine sets a horrible precedent,” said Leary. She said Maine’s bear-management program, run by some of the nation’s top bear biologists, could suffer “immeasurable damage” if the initiative passes.

Leary’s group says the restrictions would also eat into revenues from Maine’s bear hunt, which is supported by a stable bear population of about 23,000, one of the largest in the lower 48 states.

The opponents shrugged off the claim of more than 100,000 voters’ signatures collected, noting that heavy support by petition signers does not guarantee an Election Day victory.

In an Indian casino referendum campaign last year, a similar number of signatures was gathered, but the proposal lost at the ballot box 2-1.

The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine as well as Maine trappers, bowhunters and professional guides’ associations oppose the referendum. Also opposing it are the state Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department and Gov. John Baldacci.

But it’s unlikely the initiated bill will ever reach Baldacci’s desk. In most cases, legislators routinely reject initiated bills so they can be automatically sent to voters.

On the Net:

Maine Citizens for Fair Bear Hunting:

AP-ES-01-28-04 1509EST

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