This weekend marks the start of bear baiting season in Maine, when hunters and guides enter the woods to fill bait sites with food meant to attract bears for the fall hunt, which begins next month.
In response, Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, the group leading a campaign to ban bear baiting, hounding and trapping, will gather at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 27, in Portland’s Monument Square.
“Basically, on Sunday, we’re using the start of baiting season as a chance to educate people about why putting millions of pounds of junk food in the year is a problem,” said Katie Hansberry, campaign director of Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting.
The gathering will be in support of the statewide referendum, slated for Question 1 on the Nov. 4 ballot, “Do you want to ban the use of bait, dogs or traps in bear hunting except to protect property, public safety, or for research?”
If the referendum passes, it would ban all three forms of bear hunting, which Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting defines as “cruel and unsporting practices not needed to manage the population.”
However, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife recently stated that bear baiting, hounding and trapping is necessary to control the bear population. The department predicts that the bear harvest will fall “well below objectives” without these three practices.
Proponents of the referendum argue that Maine’s black bear population has increased 30 percent since 2004 and 253 percent since the mid-1970s, when baiting became popular.
“Baiting habituates Maine’s bear population to human foods and smells; the population is increasingly less afraid of humans. Ten years ago, the average was about 400 nuisance bear complaints annually; that average is now 500 per year,” Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting stated in the press release for the upcoming event.
Judy Camuso, DIF&W wildlife division director disagrees, stating that the department has over 40 years of data that indicates that baiting does not affect the black bear population in the ways suggested by opponents of the practice. State biologists capture hundreds of bears annually in Eastern Maine, Northern Maine and Central Maine to map bears’ weight, productivity and hibernation patterns.
“The average yearling weight directly correlates with the natural food supply,” Camuso said. “If bait were making an impact, we would expect yearling weights to be consistent from year to year, which they are not.”
Black bear populations are increasing across the country, in states that allow baiting and in states that have banned bear baiting, Camuso said, and state biologists believe this is largely due to a growth in bear-friendly habitat following the most recent spruce budworm outbreak.
“One thing I don’t think people realize is how much food a black bear needs to eat in the fall,” Camuso said. “They consume 25,000 to 27,000 calories per day, putting on 4 pounds of fat per day … There’s not enough bait on the landscape to support that quantity of calories.”
Currently, Maine hunters and guides supply black bears with approximately 7 million pounds of food at bait sites scattered throughout the state each year, according to Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting. This estimation comes from an extrapolation made by Bill Nemitz of the Portland Press Herald in a story published March 23.
“With 5,200 sites, each stocked with 1,333 pounds of bait over a hunting season, you get 6.9 million pounds of food being introduced annually by humans into the black bears’ food supply,” Nemitz wrote.
Nemitz’s calculation is made by multiplying the amount of bait used per bait site by one Maine outfitter (P.B. Guide Service of Somerset County) with the number of bears taken by bait in 2012 (2,613), then multiplying that by two, based on a “widely accepted ratio of two bait sites for every bear taken.”
Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting also asks voters to look to hunting practices of other states, especially Oregon, Washington and Colorado, all of which banned bear baiting and hounding within the past 20 years. Maine is the only state that allows bear trapping.
“Baiting, hounding, and trapping take the skill out of hunting,” the press release states. “Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting wants to preserve Maine’s historic tradition of fair-chase hunting.”
Fair-chase hunting, also known as still hunting, is hunting by stealth over natural food sources. If the referendum passes, this method of hunting would still be permitted.
The group leading the campaign opposing the referendum, Save Maine’s Bear Hunt and Management Program, argues that fair-chase hunting or still hunting is not an effective method for controlling the black bear population in Maine, which is currently larger than the bear populations in any other state in the eastern US.
In the past, still hunting has accounted for a small percentage of the annual bear harvest. Of the 2,845 bears harvested in 2013, 93 percent of the bears were taken by hunters using bait, dogs or traps; while about 7 percent were taken by still-hunters, according to the DIF&W.
As November draws near, both sides of the debate will be hosting events in an effort to educate the public.
To learn more about Maine’s black bear hunting laws, visit maine.gov/ifw/hunting_trapping. To learn about Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, visit fairbearhunt.com. To learn about Save Maine’s Bear Hunt and Management Programs, visit savemainesbearhunt.com.