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The bear necessities hit Maine

Referendum on certain hunting practices fuels debate

As a hard-fought presidential race in Maine nears its climax, a campaign to alter bear hunting practices is stirring an equal swell of emotion, backed by millions of dollars in advertisements and infused with a sense that the very ethos of the state is under attack.

An unusual alliance of animal rights activists and hunters is pressing a ballot referendum that would ban bear hunting with bait -- tempting items like doughnuts, molasses, and bacon grease that lure bears out of dense forests. The measure also seeks to end the use of dogs and leg traps to capture bears.

The debate echoes a larger issue Mainers are pondering -- the growing chasm between the rural northern half and the increasingly suburban south, a long-simmering culture clash in this state that has spurred talk of ''Two Maines."

Maine's black bears -- estimated at 23,000, the largest population in the lower 48 states -- are state icons, symbolic of the state's vast northern frontier, where the ways of hunters dictate life and only the foolhardy venture without fluorescent orange garb. But to the growing voting bloc of southern Maine suburbanites, many of them transplants from out of state, the animals are a nuisance, scary intruders that scavenge for food in garbage cans.

Maine is the only state in the nation that allows trapping; it is one of 17 that allow the use of hounds and 11 that allow baiting, according to the Maine Environmental Policy Institute. Alaska, another preeminent hunting state, will also decide whether to curtail bear baiting this election, with a referendum on its ballot as well.

Proponents of the referendum say the practices of baiting, the use of dogs, and trapping are cruel and unsportsmanlike -- crutches for out-of-state trophy hunters more interested in bear rugs than the skill and sport of the hunt.

''You don't have to be a hunter to realize that these practices are cruel and they are wrong, and not what we want for our state," said Robert Fisk, a former state legislator who founded Maine Friends of Animals and has been a leading force behind the ballot initiative.

Fisk paints a graphic picture of current bear hunting practices: wounded bears limping into the woods after being lured with bait and shot by inexperienced hunters who are unable to pursue the animals and fire a final shot; bears languishing in leg traps; bears mauled by hounds and left to die a slow death.

Opponents of the bans say that even the most experienced sportsmen use bait for the elusive animals, which allows hunters to get close enough to fire a shot likely to kill a bear. ''Bears are not like deer or moose -- you don't just come upon them in the woods," said Edie Leary, a spokeswoman for the Maine Fish & Wildlife Conservation Council, which opposes the referendum. ''Baiting allows a good clean shot."

Without the use of bait, opponents of the referendum say, the bear population will spiral because hunters will not be able to find and kill the animals and interest in bear hunting will decline. They note that of some 4,000 bears killed annually in Maine, three-quarters are lured into range with the use of bait.

Critics of bear baiting counter that the three states that most recently banned baiting -- Colorado in 1992, Oregon in 1994, and Washington in 1996 -- have since logged increases in bear-hunting licenses. None of the states has reported a significant rise in bear numbers.

The idea that such a proposal could make it onto the ballot is testament to the changing ways of Maine, where the sprawling rural north is losing population as the south gains residents in rapidly growing suburbs. The southern tier, some say, has the numbers to sway the vote, but a poor grasp on the ways of the woods.

''These people have a different point of view," said Mike Dowd, 39, a painter and recreational hunter who lives in Kennebunkport and plans to vote against the measure.

The theme of two Maines has percolated in other races this election year. State Senator Chris Hart, a Democrat bidding for reelection in the state's midcoast region, has argued on the campaign trail that southern Maine should scale back the money it sends north. Hart says that subsidizing the north is a futile practice because the money goes largely to maintain empty roads.

The ballot initiative also underscores how wildlife issues have changed in the state: They are now aimed at containing animal populations rather than growing them. Like many species, black bears have made a comeback in Maine, following increased restrictions on hunters. Bears were hunted year-round for much of the first half of the century. The state shortened bear season to a six-month period in the 1960s and since 1982, a three-month season in autumn has been in place.

Opponents of further restrictions include an array of backers. Governor John Baldacci, a Democrat, has sided with them, as has the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, a lobbying group. The state's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife also opposes restrictions.

Michael Hogan, a deer hunter, said the department's position will dictate his vote. ''If the biologists are against it, that's enough for me," said Hogan, a firefighter who lives in York. In a measure of the furor over the ballot referendum, money has poured into the state to fund a barrage of television advertising. According to the Maine Ethics Commission, antireferendum spending has totaled $1.3 million; proreferendum spending has reached $886,000.

At the Kittery Trading Post, a large supplier of hunting equipment, sportsmen were on edge about the ballot referendum last week, and many were reluctant to discuss it for fear of reprisals.

''There are some perceptions of wildlife that are simply fanciful," said Kim Adams, the vice president of the company, who said he had received several e-mails accusing him of animal cruelty after his company made known its support of bear baiting.

Some hunters say they understand the concerns of referendum supporters, but they maintain the matter should remain a personal preference.

''Some people might want to stalk one -- more power to them," said Troy White, who leads bear-hunting expeditions from a base near Bangor, using bait to lure the animals from the forest. ''I've been a guide for 17 years, and I have yet to see a bear in the woods."

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at

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