AUGUSTA (AP) – Leaders of a citizen initiative to stop bear baiting in Maine boycotted Wednesday’s legislative hearing on the bill, saying committee members had already made up their minds to oppose it.

“Frankly, there’s no sense in providing testimony to a group who put us in this referendum position in the first place,” said Robert Fisk, director of Maine Citizens for Fair Bear Hunting.

The Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee “is predisposed in its position given its long association with the opponents of this legislation,” Fisk said shortly before the panel opened its hearing.

Organized and individual opponents of the initiative, which would also ban trapping bears and hunting them with hounds, scoffed at Fisk’s group’s tactic.

“It’s a travesty, it’s a joke,” said Don Helstrom of Medway, who owns hunting camps near Ashland. “They’re just eluding the public process.”

George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, rejected suggestions that the game committee marches in lockstep with the 13,000-member hunting lobby.

“I think it’s arrogant to put a bill in and not participate, and then attack the Legislature,” said Smith, who said the citizens’ group was running away from a substantive discussion on the issue.

Initiative backers, who include a number of seasoned hunters, oppose baiting bears with sweets and other food, trapping and hounding because they believe those methods are unsporting and inhumane. They also say Maine is the only state that allows all three methods of hunting black bears.

Fisk, a former Republican legislator, said bills submitted on their behalf in past sessions have been summarily shot down in committee. He said his group is now taking its message directly to voters, who will decide on the ban in November unless the Legislature takes the unexpected step of enacting it first.

Gov. John Baldacci opposes the initiative.

The hearing was held at the Augusta Civic Center to accommodate a crowd of more than 100, but representation by initiative supporters was light. Many of those attending wore green or camouflage outfits and caps identifying them as guides.

John Glowa, a wildlife activist from South China, said the state has failed to bar what many consider a cruel snaring method of trapping coyotes.

“Shooting a bear after we’ve trained it to come to you with jelly doughnuts is not hunting – it’s killing,” Glowa said.

A Newport man who said he has extensive experience hunting in Maine and a dozen other states said he favors the bill because he believes it will open bear hunting to Mainers who are now locked out of it.

Larry Ferrell said it’s virtually impossible to hunt in Maine’s north woods without hiring guides, who frequently use the baiting method.

“Maine hunters by about a 90 percentile are locked out by the guides,” Ferrell told the committee. “They’ve got the business sewed up.”

But state game Commissioner Danny Martin defended the present hunting methods as a scientifically sound way to manage the black bear population.

State bear biologist Ken Elowe said Maine’s bear census, estimated at about 23,000, is “thriving” and is the largest in the eastern states. Because of Maine’s rough terrain and thick woods, bears can’t be hunted in ways they are in other states, Elowe told the committee.

Baiting, trapping and hounding have become an essential part of managing Maine’s bear population to meet objectives that are set with the assistance of the public, he said.

The two sides disagree on how a ban of the three hunting methods would affect businesses associated with bear hunting.

Initiative backers say it would likely cause an extension of the season and bring in more hunters, while Helstrom believes it would have a negative effect.

“It will curb an industry as we know it today,” he said.

AP-ES-03-31-04 1604EST

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