Proponents of bear-baiting ban funded near-entirely by national Humane Society

The reports filed yesterday by both sides of the upcoming bear-baiting ballot question couldn’t be more different.

The referendum  will ask whether voters favor outlawing the hunting of bears over bait, with hounds or with traps. All three methods are currently used in Maine, with the vast majority of bears taken by hunters each year being shot over bait. Mainers rejected identical ballot measures in 2004, 53 percent to 47 percent.

Proponents of the proposed ban on hunting bears over bait, with traps or with hounds, raised just $3,600 in cash contributions during the first three months of the year, while opponents of the prohibition raised more than $472,000.

Still, the group supporting the band — Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting — are carrying a cash balance of more than $477,000. Meanwhile, opponents, dubbed Maine Wildlife Conservation Council, have more than $411,000 cash on-hand.

The other major difference: The bulk of MFBH’s cash has come from one source: The Humane Society of the United States, based in Washington, D.C.

The group has raised some money from other sources, most of them unidentified contributions of $100 or less. But the Humane Society gave the group $700,000 cash in the last quarter of 2013.

Plus, the Humane Society has borne almost $150,000 of direct costs associated with Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, contributing more than $50,000 worth of staff time, consultation and other goods and services between January 1 and March 31 of this year, and more than $98,000 in the last quarter of 2013.

When you factor in all cash and in-kind contributions, the Humane Society of the United States has funded a whopping 93 percent of the entire Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting campaign.

In comparison, MWCC claims that about half its cash this reporting period came from sources in Maine, with 74 percent total coming from the New England states. Many of those contributions were small pledges from individual supporters and businesses, many of which were unidentified because their contributions were under $100.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there weren’t some big-money backers for the friends of bear-baiting: The group raised $285,000 of its quarterly contributions from 11 sportsmen groups and businesses that gave more than $5,000 each. The largest contributors were Friends of Maine Sportsmen, which gave $103,000; Maine Trappers Association, which gave more than $52,000; North Maine Woods, a group of individual and corporate landowners, gave $25,000; and the Washington, D.C.-based Ballot Issues Coaltion gave $20,000.

Granted, the source of the money has little to do with the arguments for or against baiting, hounding and trapping. Nor does it mean there aren’t passionate supporters of Mainers for Fair Bear Huntings’ cause — the group claims that more than 2,000 volunteers all over the state helped gather signatures to get the question on the ballot, and that’s not nothing.

But opponents of the proposed ban are indicating that they’ll use the out-of-state cash as a campaign cudgel in the upcoming months.

A press release from the Maine Wildlife Conservation Council on Friday made no mention of the hunting practices (it didn’t even include the words “bait,” “hounds” or “traps”), but took aim squarely at the Humane Society.

“We understand that the group pushing this ballot measure, the Humane Society of the United States, can at any moment [provide] tremendous resources to the campaign,” said James Cote, the group’s campaign manager. “However, today’s report signifies the groundswell of local opposition that we are experiencing.”

UPDATE: Katie Hansberry, Humane Society’s woman on the ground in Maine and the campaign director for MFBH, said Saturday that opponents of the ban were trying to distract from the real issue of baiting, hounding and trapping, which she called “cruel and inhumane.”

She said Mainers should be heartened by the campaign’s transparency about its funding sources, and said that while Humane Society of the United States may have an out-of-state address, tens of thousands of Mainers are members of the group, and have pledged their time and support for the initiative.

“Our supports have not only given money, but given so much of themselves during a long, cold winter to gather the [78,000] signatures we delivered to put this question on the ballot,” she said.

OK, but what exactly is the issue at the ballot?

Bear baiting is the use of food by hunters to lure bears to a chosen location where they can be easily shot from close range. Hounding involves the use of trained dogs to assist in a bear hunt. Proponents of the ban say the practice is unfair to the bears, dangerous for the dogs, and cruel to both.

But, according to a fact sheet provided by the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, baiting, hounding and trapping are essential methods of bear population management. Roughly 80 percent of bears killed in Maine are lured with bait, the state says, while another 11 percent are killed by hounding and 3 percent with traps.

Even with these techniques, the success rate of bear harvesting through baiting and hounding is just 30 percent, according to Inland Fisheries and Wildlife statistics, and just 19 percent for trapping. Only deer hunters have lower success rates.

Mario Moretto

About Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and, now, in the State House.