This week Maine hunters started setting out barrels laden with meat, pastries and other sweets in anticipation of the annual three-month bear hunt that begins at the end of August. The bait is used at regulated sites to attract bears, which are difficult to spot in the dense Maine woods. But if supporters of a statewide referendum are successful, baiting, trapping and the use of hounds to hunt bears will be outlawed except in special circumstances. And that possibility has state bear biologists and the hunting community on edge.
To get to his bait sites in western Maine, Bob Parker of Stony Brook Outfitters logs hundreds of miles in his worn-in pickup truck, passes through secured gates that keep most of the public at bay, and up rutted skidder trails like this one.
"You know, I try to find someplace where I think a bear is going to be living, you know?" Parker says "Sometimes you think you found a good spot and then you find out it isn't. Sometimes it takes two or three weeks for the bear to find your bait site. You know, not every bait site is a working bait site."
In other words, says Parker, just because he sets out the bait doesn't mean the bears will come. Parker stops his truck, grabs a bucket of crumbled up doughnuts, gummy bears and what he says is his secret ingredient and heads into the dark woods thick with mosquitoes.
A short walk later, across a stream sprinkled with moss-covered rocks, we arrive at a partial clearing. In the middle is a covered barrel. Parker takes off the lid to keep out small bears and pours in his sugary concoction.
For more than 30 years Parker has guided hundreds of clients from as far away as Oklahoma and Texas into places like this one. During hunting season he has them wait, camouflaged, about 70 yards away.
"People have this mindset that we're just shooting a bear with his head in the barrel," Parker says. "That just doesn't happen. These bears are smart. They're keen. They can smell. They can hear. They're cautious, shy animals. Not every bear who comes to a bait site gets shot, let's put it that way."
Maine's black bear population is the largest on the East Coast, estimated at 30,000 and growing. Jen Vashon, the state's bear biologist with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, says of the 11,000 bear hunters in Maine, only about one in four is successful at bagging a bear. That's relying mostly on bait and hounds, something 23 states allow.
"To stabilize the bear population we need to remove about ten to 15 percent of the bears each year," Vashon says. "So that's a harvest of between 3,500 and 4,500 bears each fall."
Vashon says the state sets its target based on decades worth of research and monitoring of bears. But the objective has become harder to meet because the number of bear hunters has dropped by about 3,000 since 2004. If the referendum passes, spotting and stalking will be the only way for hunters to kill bears, except in certain circumstances. And Vashon says that's a concern because hunters using the stalking method are only successful about three percent of the time.
"Here in Maine we'd need over 100,000 bear hunters to meet our harvest objectives and right now we have only 11,000 bear hunters," Vashon says. "So it would be difficult for us to harvest bears at the numbers we need to control our population and minimize conflicts between bears and people."
Conflicts between bears and people account for about 500 complaints each year in Maine. Vashon says that's a small number considering the size of the bear population. She says other states that have restricted bear hunting have seen those complaints rise. Including one western state that banned the use of bait and hounds more than two decades ago.
"Colorado is a great example," Vashon says. "Their bear population has doubled since their referendum. They have about 1,000 bear complaints each year and in 2012 alone, 400 bears were killed in backyards to protect human safety and almost 100 were killed on roadways."
It has been ten years since Maine voters narrowly rejected a similar proposal to ban the use of bait, hounds and traps in Maine's bear hunt. Since then, several attempts in the Legislature have also failed. Katie Hansberry is director of Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting the campaign working to restrict bear hunting. She's also the state director for the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society of the United States, the largest animal rights organization in the country. Of about $1.5 million raised in support of Maine's campaign so far, the group and its lobbying arm have contributed nearly all of it.
"We're very confident that we're going to win and people are going to vote Yes on 1 in November," Hansberry says. "And this time we have ten more years of data from the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife that demonstrate that baiting, hounding and trapping, on top of being unsporting practices, are completely unnecessary and problematic, especially baiting."
Baiting is a big problem, says Hansberry, because it hasn't worked. The bear population is climbing. Meanwhile, hunters are relying on almost 7 million pounds of junk food being set out in the woods to lure bears that become accustomed to it if they aren't killed.
"We're training the bears and habituating them to human foods and human smells and that creates nuisance bears," Hansberry says. "So, if we want to stabilize the bear population, nuisance complaints, what we need to do is stop baiting, hounding and trapping and restore fair chase to Maine's bear hunt."
Fair chase is the concept of sportsmanlike pursuit of a big game animal that does not give the hunter an unfair advantage. Hansberry says it's something that Maine animal rights groups, animals shelters, faith leaders and more than 60 veterinarians support. So does at least one former Maine hunter who will soon be appearing in a television ad in support of Question 1.
"Just before I was married I hunted every day of my life almost," says Mary Moulton, 90, of Livermore Falls. "I would still love to hunt if I could!"
Moulton never hunted bear, only deer and the occasional rabbit. But she is so opposed to bear baiting, hounding and trapping that she wrote a letter to the editor of the Bangor Daily News and has taken on the role of a spokesperson for the cause.
"And anybody that does those three things don't know what hunting's all about and they're better off to stay out of the woods," she says. "That's my opinion."
Moulton says baiting and trapping are degrading to bears. But IFW biologist Vashon says she thinks bears will be seen as a nuisance animal or pest if encounters with people and their property increase. Outfitter Parker says he fears mother bears will be lost in greater numbers if hunters can't properly identify them and avoid targeting them the way they can now at bait sites and with the use of traps and hounds. And there's another reason he says he'll vote No on 1.
"If this referendum passes, it's going to put hundreds of outfitters out of business and some of us employ six or seven people," Parker says. "It's bad for Maine. Bad for the economy. Bear hunting isn't the only thing I do but it's the biggest part of my income and if this passes, it's going to put me out of business, simple as that."
Supporters reject the idea that passage of the referendum will be bad for the economy. Expect both sides to present competing economic impact studies well before Election Day.