Bear Hunting Debate Shifts to Outlawing Traps

It seems that legislators aren't ready to let go of last fall's failed referendum proposing a ban on bear hunting with bait, dogs and traps, as more than a dozen bills proposing changes to Maine's bear hunt are on tap for the 122nd Legislature.

It seems that legislators aren't ready to let go of last fall's failed referendum proposing a ban on bear hunting with bait, dogs and traps, as more than a dozen bills proposing changes to Maine's bear hunt are on tap for the 122nd Legislature.

The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife opposed the referendum, arguing that wildlife management decisions ought to be made by its biologists, but Commissioner Roland "Danny" Martin hasn't yet taken a position on any of the new bills, DIF&W spokesman Mark Latti said Thursday.

The members of the now-defunct coalition of hunting groups and businesses that fought the referendum have no such doubt, George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, said last week.

"They [referendum supporters] lost. ... Our whole coalition will be unified in opposing all of these bills," Smith said. While some of the bills suggest relatively minor reforms, Smith believes that the Legislature is the wrong place for the ideas to be considered.

"If there are changes, we'd like the department to address them," he said.


But those who support reform say their constituents deserve to see each of the three hunting practices considered independently. None of the bills seeks to ban baiting, but several banning traps or dogs are on the minds of legislators, particularly in southerly and urban communities where the referendum was favored.

On Election Day, countless voters said they wished that the triple referendum could have been split -- defending the right to hunt with bait or dogs, but outlawing bear trapping.

While collecting signatures to get the bear referendum on the ballot, Rep. John Eder, a Green Independent Party member from Portland, heard the same complaints. Although few hunters use the equipment, Maine is alone among the 50 states in still recognizing the leg-hold traps as legal for bear.

Eder had initially introduced a bill banning each practice, but has since pulled his bill seeking to ban baiting for fear it would be too "inflammatory." Instead, he has joined forces with Rep. Thomas Watson, a Bath Democrat and co-chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, to co-sponsor a joint bill to ban bear traps.

"There's a real divide between the hunting community and the people down south," Eder said Thursday, explaining that he wants to see the rift healed.

Watson said Thursday that he hopes to end the bear controversy by giving a bear trapping ban the opportunity to be heard, as well as by sponsoring a second bill, supported by SAM, that would allow bear guides to carry guns into the woods at night and on Sundays if they are tracking a wounded bear.

"We're trying to work out a compromise," Watson said.

Bob Fisk, founder of Maine Friends of Animals and the spokesman for last year's referendum campaign, said Thursday he will urge passage of the trapping bills, as well as a measure introduced by Rep. Jane Eberle, D-South Portland, that would ban the hunting of bears with hounds.

Fisk, too, supports splitting the issue, saying Thursday that he believes a referendum on only trapping and hunting with hounds -- practices that he terms "barbaric" -- could have passed.

Daryl DeJoy, director of the new Bangor-based Wildlife Alliance of Maine, said last week his organization also will be supporting several bills that seek to ban the use of traps in bear hunting, including those sponsored by Eder and Rep. Deborah Hutton, D-Bowdoinham.

As a new organization with a focus on shifting more of DIF&W's attention to the priorities of non-hunters, WAM's legislative action this session will be limited to a few bills seeking to bar or legalize practices that the group's members consider particularly egregious, such as bear trapping, coyote snaring and Sunday hunting, he said.

Maine Audubon, which declared itself neutral on the referendum, intends to take positions on the bills but hasn't yet reviewed all of the specific proposals, Audubon attorney and lobbyist Jen Burns said earlier this week.

Several bills introduced this session also seek to require broader participation in getting a referendum on the ballot. The bear referendum drew a majority of its signatures from the more urban southern Maine, while the rural regions where most bear hunting occurs were underrepresented, critics have said.

But Rep. Thomas Saviello, who has sponsored a bill that would require a percentage of each county's voters to sign a referendum petition, rather than a percentage of voters statewide, said that the problem -- and his proposed solution -- pre-date the bear referendum.

"I really feel that referendum questions need the entire state to participate. They're being driven more and more by southern Maine issues," Saviello said last week, citing forestry and wildlife policy as examples.

Rep. Harold Clough, R-Scarborough, agrees with Saviello, but proposes a different solution in his bill. His measure would limit the amount of funding and volunteer support a referendum campaign could accept from out of state.

Groups from outside Maine often promote referendums that support their ideology, bringing in both money and staff to ensure a spot on the ballot, he said last week.

Saviello is also sponsoring a measure to create a committee for reforming Maine's citizen referendum procedures -- everything from the geographic distribution of signatures, to funding, to when and where signature gathering is permitted could be up for debate.

In the days immediately following the bear referendum, Smith had spoken of putting SAM's resources behind a bill restricting the right of citizens to make wildlife policy by ballot. No such bill has been introduced, however, and the hunting group is instead supporting Saviello's reform proposal.

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News