New economic study sheds light on potential impact of bear referendum

Total spending by bear hunters in Maine totaled nearly $53 million last year, according to a new economic study prepared for the Maine Office of Tourism and Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The study is especially relevant in light of an upcoming referendum that, if passed, would limit the methods used to hunt black bear in Maine.

Photo courtesy of Sharon Fiedler

Photo courtesy of Sharon Fiedler

The study, which found that bear hunting has an impact on 565 jobs in Maine, was prepared by Southwick Associates, a Florida-based company that specializes in shooting sports, hunting, angling, natural resource and environmental economics.

Question 1, slated for the Nov. 4 ballot, asks: “Do you want to ban the use of bait, dogs or traps in bear hunting except to protect property, public safety, or for research?”

Leading the campaign in support of the referendum, the group Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting hold that these hunting practices are “cruel, unsporting and unnecessary.”

In opposition, the DIF&W and the coalition Save Maine’s Bear Hunt and Management Programs, declares the use of bait, hounds and traps are necessary to manage the growing black bear population in the state.

Currently, the vast majority of bear guides and hunters in Maine use one of the three hunting methods at risk of being banned. Approximately 93 percent of the bears killed during Maine’s 2013 bear hunting season were taken with the use of bait, hounds or traps, according to DIF&W harvest records.

“I talk frequently with about 115 sporting camp owners and guiding business owners located in northern Maine who tell me that the future of their businesses is directly tied to the outcome of the referendum,” stated Al Cowperthwaite, executive director of North Maine Woods Inc, in a recent press release.

“Bear hunting related income is close to 40-50 percent of total income for many of these family-owned businesses,” said Cowperthwaite. “If they are no longer able to hold bear hunts, income from guiding fisherman and moose, deer and partridge hunters will not sustain them.”

The study also indicates that bear hunting impacts deer hunting in Maine. In surveys conducted for the study, 95 percent of bear hunters also reported hunting deer last year. In Maine, the two seasons overlap.

A black bear walks near Taylor Bait Pond in Orono. Photo courtesy of Sharon Fiedler

A black bear walks near Taylor Bait Pond in Orono. Photo courtesy of Sharon Fiedler

Executive Director of the Maine Professional Guides Association Don Kleiner said passage of the referendum would be an economic disaster for small business owners, especially in rural Maine.

“In the last few weeks, folks in northern Maine have been dealt two very harsh economic blows,” stated Kleiner in the press release. “We’re seeing paper mills close in Millinocket and Bucksport, and now we’re facing the prospect of removing another $52 million from a fragile economy. That just doesn’t make sense.”

Katie Hansberry, campaign director of Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, disagrees. She believes that if the referendum passes, Maine will see an economic boost from an increased interest in hunting bears without the use of hounds, bait or traps — also known as still hunting.

To form this prediction, Hansberry looked to other states that have banned bear baiting, hounding and trapping in the past 20 years.

In Washington state, the use of bait and hounds in bear hunting was banned in 1997. Since the ban, the number of bears harvested annually be hunters has increased 16 percent, according to a case study about Washington state prepared for Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting by Gary Koehler, former research scientist at Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

To keep bear harvest numbers high after the ban of bear baiting and hounding, Washington’s wildlife department took measures to encourage more hunters to pursue bears. The department lowered the bear hunting license price from $18 to $10, packaged bear tags with big-game permits for elk and deer, lengthened the bear season, and increased the bag limit on bears from one to two per person.

“Just like the opponents use of scare tactics about the risk of bear attacks, they are inflating the economic value of their program built around setting up garbage dumps for bears in the Maine woods,” Hansberry stated in a press release about the new economic study.

According to a prepared statement by the DIF&W, the economic impact study was conducted in response to recommendations made in a 2012 report by a task force established by the 125th Maine Legislature to examine the decreasing number of nonresident hunters in Maine. One major recommendation of the report was that hunters should be surveyed using a qualified market research firm specializing in natural resource and outdoor recreation issues.

In addition to an analysis of the economic impact of bear hunting, it study included analyses of Maine’s other game animals — deer, upland game birds, turkey, migratory waterfowl, moose and small game. The hunting portion of this study is the first part of a three-part study that will also look at fishing and general trends.

The full study by Southwick Associates can be found http://visitmaine.com/assets/downloads/ME_Hunt_Economics%20Final%20Report%2010-06-2014.pdf.

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.