What would happen if the referendum passed? And how do some states control bears without using the techniques some here abhor?

Randy Cross has been Maine’s chief bear biologist for more than 30 years. If the referendum passes this time, he foresees an immediate increase in the number of bears, one that’s likely to also increase the number of “nuisance” bear complaints that have been on the rise in Maine and elsewhere in recent years.

Mark Latti, spokesman for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said the state receives at least 500 complaints a year, and as many as 800 in 2012. This year, as bears are emerging from their winter dens, the department has already received 20 complaints.

Since the vast majority of bears are killed by hunters by baiting, hounding and trapping — about 70 percent over bait alone — the nuisance bear complaint numbers would skyrocket if the three hunting methods were outlawed, he said.

Maine issues about 11,000 bear licenses, and 3,200 bears are tagged each year — a 30 percent success rate.

“If we don’t shoot 3,000 bears a year, it’s possible that the population could spin out of control,” Cross said.

While he acknowledged that a variety of factors influence bear populations, particularly the availability of natural foods, and that — up to a point — bears reproduce according to the available food, all signs point to an immediate upsurge in numbers, should the referendum pass.

“I’d rather not get to that point,” Cross said. “It’s not a good place to be.”

Jen Vachon, the state’s assistant bear biologist, said while baiting undoubtedly provides more calories than bears would get otherwise, natural food sources are still dominant.

Bear complaints are highest in the spring, after bears emerge from their dens, but before their favorite foods — berries in summer and “mast” in the fall (beechnuts and acorns) — are widely available, she said.

Bears in spring are hungry, and subsist on early vegetation, carrion and occasional deer fawns and moose calves. She agrees that a population explosion is possible, if not certain, if current hunting techniques are banned.

A different perspective is offered by Daryl DeJoy, who heads the Wildlife Alliance of Maine and is part of Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, the coalition backing the referendum.

DeJoy, a veteran Maine guide and wildlife rehabilitator, said that it’s the supplemental feeding of bears through baiting that has artificially inflated the number of animals.

“If you’re providing the kind of high-protein, high-fat food sources the guides use in baiting, then you’re going to have more bears, and they will produce more cubs,” he said.

He cites studies published by the Wildlife Society, an organization of wildlife management professionals, to back up his point.

A conversation with a Minnesota researcher produced dramatic evidence. “That study found that females began bearing cubs at much younger ages due to supplemental feeding,” he said. “Do the math. If you have that many more cubs, you’ll also have more bears.”

Although some referendum supporters may feel differently, DeJoy said, “You don’t have to decide whether this is humane or not. Just look at the science.”

State chapters of the Wildlife Society have reached different conclusions, however. Its 2006 technical review noted that the Maine Chapter opposed the 2004 referendum and supported baiting, while other state chapters opposed supplemental feeding, except for research projects.

The 1990s were the heyday for bear hunting referendums, many of them funded in large part by the Humane Society of the United States, which spent $1.5 million in 2004 and is expected to contribute more this year.

The first referendum, in Colorado in 1992, banned baiting and hounding by a 70 percent majority with Amendment 10 to the state constitution. A referendum in Oregon in 1994 was also successful, though by a smaller margin, at 52 percent.

In 1996, the peak year, voters approved restrictions on bear hunting in Washington (63 percent) and Massachusetts (55 percent) but rejected them in Michigan (62 percent opposed) and Idaho (60 percent opposed).

Some states that have bear hunts and allow baiting and hounding — including New Hampshire — do not have an initiative-and-referendum process, so any changes would have to come through the Legislature, where advocates of restrictions have had less success.

Maine faces a second referendum because of the closeness of the 2004 vote, which gave those opposed to baiting hope for victory a second time around, and because it has a much larger number of bears killed each year.

Before the Massachusetts vote, for instance, fewer than 100 bears were taken each year. Hounding had been banned earlier, in 1970. New Hampshire has an annual total of about 300 bears taken — less than a 10th of Maine’s numbers.

Coming in from away

In addition to disagreement about managing the bear population, there is also disagreement about whether Maine might experience a serious loss of out-of-state hunters if the referendum is approved.

“We’re surrounded by Canadian provinces that allow all these
techniques, and if we’re a one-day drive from most of the Northeast, it isn’t much farther to Canada,” IF&W’s Cross said.

“People forget that, in terms of habitat, we’re much more similar to Canada than the rest of the United States.”

He isn’t sure what proportion of out-of-staters would keep coming here. Maine’s license fees are lower than most states, but he wonders if they’d keep coming back under the restrictions. The 30 percent success rate under existing hunting laws could fall to perhaps 3 percent under what referendum supporters call “fair chase,” he said.

Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting’s DeJoy doesn’t disagree that out-of-state hunters may no longer come here, but he makes it clear he dislikes a guiding industry based on bait sites in the North Woods.

He also says many guides advertise success rates far higher than the statewide average, which includes local hunting with far less sophisticated methods.

“I don’t think we should organize our hunt based on the convenience of guides and out-of-staters,” he said.

The experience of other states sheds some light on what might happen in Maine, though the professionals caution that each state is distinct in habitat, terrain and human population.

After Colorado banned baiting and hounding in 1992, “there was no significant increase in bear numbers,” according to Jerry Apker, who’s been carnivore biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife for 34 years.

But he cautioned that the factors determining population in Maine may well be different from those in Colorado.

For one thing, Colorado limits the number of bear hunting licenses, while Maine would like to have more hunters. As the bear population began to grow rapidly in recent years, Colorado increased the number of permits by 2,000 and has extended the number of hunting days in some areas.

By contrast, Cross says that the number of Maine licenses has fallen short by more than a 1,000 per year, despite a longer season than elsewhere, and the number of bears killed has been below targeted levels since 2006.

The number of bears killed by hunters in Colorado is about 1,000, but the state has found ways to attract out-of-staters, who now hold about 30 percent of bear permits — almost double a decade ago, Apker said.

Forest cover is much sparser in the drier conditions of the Rocky Mountains than in Maine, which has abundant moisture through the year. So when bears are in their annual bout of “hyperphasia” — biologists’ term for the feeding frenzy that takes place each fall, before denning — they move around through different elevations and are much more visible in the Centennial State, Apker said.

Other simple techniques can increase hunting success, too.

“Some hunters tie a CD up in the lower branches of a tree,” he said. “Bears are naturally curious, and they’re attracted to shiny objects.”

Apker uses a similar method to aid in research that doesn’t involve trapping bears.

“I carry around a blue piece of PVC pipe,” he said. “I don’t know if bears can see colors, but it really attracts them.”

When the bears stand up to investigate the pipe, Apker can identify gender, size and condition without the more labor-intensive and intrusive methods involved in live trapping.

Colorado has been able to attract business away from states like Utah and Wyoming that still allow baiting and hounding because of such innovations, he said. “Though, really, Wyoming has mostly grizzly bears, not black bears, and you can’t hunt them.”

Grizzlies are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Pennsylvania is a state more similar in forest conditions to Maine and also registers a large bear kill — about 3,500 a year — but also has many, many more hunters.

Travis Lau, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, said that of the 176,000 bear hunters, just 5,300 — or 3 percent — come from out of state.

Pennsylvania also has a much shorter and later hunting season than Maine or Colorado. Maine’s bear season runs from late August through the end of November, while Colorado’s season, set by the referendum, runs from Labor Day to the end of September.

Pennsylvania’s statewide season is only three days around Thanksgiving, though there are additional days in some game management areas, and around such heavily populated areas as Philadelphia and Harrisburg, where “We really don’t want incidental encounters between bears and humans,” Lau said.

Pennsylvania hasn’t allowed trapping or hounding of bears for nearly a century, and baiting appears to have been banned during the 1930s, though Lau said the exact date isn’t clear in the legislative record.

The relatively robust bear population the state now enjoys is a relatively new phenomenon. As recently as the 1970s, the state closed the bear season as the population dropped to just 2,500.

Pennsylvania’s bear population is now more than five times that
number. And with bears now distributed statewide, local hunters
appear much more willing to try their luck, with permits up from the 118,000 issued in 2002.

The other reasons why comparisons with other states are less than exact is that they vary so widely in size and population.

Pennsylvania, for instance, has 12.7 million people compared to just 1.3 million in Maine. Though Pennsylvania is larger, 46,000 square miles versus 35,000 for Maine, its population density is still five times greater. And geographically, Colorado is a much larger state than any in the East, at 104,000 square miles.

Looking beyond November, Maine observers see very different pictures.

Cross says that Maine’s existing bear hunting rules are working, and that changing them in ways that might immediately and sharply reduce hunting pressure could be damaging to the well-being of both bears and humans.

“We closely monitor the health of the bears, and we know a lot
more about them than we did just 20 years ago,” he said. “Bears are very reclusive, so they’re not as easily studied as other large game animals.”

DeJoy doesn’t agree that bears benefit from current rules, and says bears may have too many cubs too early in life as a result of widespread supplemental feeding through baiting.

“Mainers sometimes have a way of resisting change, even when it’s a good change,” he said. “I really do think we can do better.”

General Election, Nov. 4, 2014

TITLE: An Act Prohibiting Certain Bear Hunting Practices
QUESTION: “Do you want to make it a crime to hunt bears with bait, traps or dogs, except to protect property, public safety or for research?”

Bear hunting by state:

Colorado

Bear population: 16,000-18,000

Number taken annually: 1,172

Total licenses: 13,672

Out-of-state licenses: 25 percent

Square miles: 104,000

Maine

Bear population: 30,000

Number taken annually: 3,207

Total licenses: 11,000

Out-of-state licenses: 55 percent

Square miles: 35,000

Pennsylvania

Bear population: 18,000

Number taken: 3,500

Total licenses: 167,000

Out-of-state licenses: 3 percent

Square mile: 46,000

Editor’s note: This sidebar was updated to reflect the correct population of bears in Maine. It is 30,000.


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