PORTLAND — Maine voters have rejected a ban on bear baiting, trapping and hounding for the second time in 10 years.
With almost half of precincts reporting Tuesday, “no” votes on Question 1 had secured an insurmountable lead of almost 20,000 votes.
The outcome was apparent for most of election night, as the vote tally on Question 1 — which reads: “Do you want to ban the use of bait, dogs or traps in bear hunting except to protect property, public safety, or for research?” — leaned decidedly toward no.
A resounding margin in Portland for the “yes” side — a 9,000-vote margin — with results that arrived near 11 p.m. tightened the race slightly, but the resulting margin — according to a Bangor Daily News projection — was still too much for the “yes” side to overcome.
“They’ve thrown everything at us, and it looks like tonight, we prevailed in this,” said James Cote, manager for the No on 1 campaign, who waited until nearly 1 a.m. Wednesday morning until accepting victory in the tight race. “We’ve run a campaign that we’re proud of.”
“From the beginning, it’s been our message to trust our Maine wildlife biologists, and we’re proud of people for doing that,” said No on 1 spokesman David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.
In Portland, Yes on 1?s campaign director Katie Hansberry acknowledged the road to the election has been a “hard fight,” but stopped short of conceding the race late Tuesday night.
The mood was glum at midnight for Question 1 supporters. Although Hansberry wasn’t prepared to concede the election, supporters gradually filed out of the Embassy Suites conference room, offering tear-choked goodbyes and lengthy hugs.
“It’s an incredibly emotional issue,” said Anita Coupe, a founding member of Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, the primary group advocating for Yes on 1. “These people feel very deeply for the animals. We feel as though we let them down. There’s a tremendous sense that we’re their only voice.”
Coupe said the apparent loss was an “enormous disappointment,” but feels confident time is on their side.
“We’re encouraged at how many people agree with us on this,” she said. “Although we came up short, we know there’s momentum here, that people are not going to accept these practices and public opinion will rise up.”
No on 1 campaign leaders, speaking early Wednesday morning, said they felt the fight is far from over. They predicted Humane Society of the United States will make future attempts to change Maine hunting policies.
“It just amazes me to think of how well people pulled together in this,” said Don Kleiner, executive director of the Maine Professional Guides Association. “The trick at this point is to maintain this coalition and think about going forward, how we can improve the wildlife business in this state and educate the public in what we do and how it’s done.”
Hansberry said the campaign’s greatest challenge came from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s endorsement of the opposition, which she characterized as “improper involvement.”
“It’s improper governing for a state agency to be using public funds to try to influence the outcome of an election,” she said. “That caused a lot of confusion for voters despite the fact that we’re the only state that still relies on these three cruel and unsporting practices.”
Hansberry said regardless of the outcome, there is a consensus that Mainers disapprove of hounding and trapping.
“Those issues should be acted on immediately (by the Legislature),” Hansberry said. “That is something we will continue to work on.”
For months, this controversial citizen initiative has stirred Mainers into a passionate debate over hunting practices. To answer this seemingly simple yes-or-no question, voters have turned to reasons concerning ethics, tradition, economy and science.
The group that led the pro-ban campaign, Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, was almost entirely funded by the Humane Society of the United States, a Washington, D.C. organization that seeks to “eliminate the most inhumane and unfair sport hunting practices.”
Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting has spent months convincing Maine voters that hunting the state’s black bears using bait, dogs and traps is “cruel, unsporting and unnecessary.”
The opposition disagrees entirely, stating that baiting, trapping and hounding are hunting tools necessary to control Maine’s bear population, which state biologists predict is about 30,000 bears. In 2013, hunters using one of these three methods accounted for 93 percent of the bears harvested during Maine’s bear hunting season in the fall.
This isn’t the first time Maine’s bear hunting practices have been placed under public scrutiny. In 2004, Mainers rejected an identical anti-baiting ballot measure, 53 percent to 47 percent. Voters in nine mostly rural counties opposed the measure overwhelmingly, while more southern and coastal parts of the state were divided. Portland voters gave the ban strong support.
In 2004, pro-ban groups raised about $930,000 for the campaign, while their opposition raised just shy of $1.3 million.
This time around, more money was raised by both sides. The pro-ban campaign raised about $2.7 million. On the other side of the debate, groups opposing the referendum raised about $2.4 million, according to financial reports filed to the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.
The primary group opposing the ban, Save Maine’s Bear Hunt and Management Programs, was endorsed by a long list of state and national outdoor organizations, including the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, Maine Professional Guides Association and National Rifle Association. Also of note, all three candidates for governor stood in opposition to the referendum.
In an unprecedented move, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife stated that it strongly opposed the referendum early in the race. The department’s position was clearly expressed by state wardens and biologists through websites, TV and online ads, public debates and media interviews.
“There’s no question that they’ve been our most powerful messengers by far,” said James Cote, manager of the NO on 1 campaign.
DIF&W biologists predict that without these hunting methods, Maine’s bear population will climb, leading to more numerous and severe human-bear conflicts.
Ben McCanna of The Forecaster contributed to this report.
Yes on 1 supporter Connie McCabe, of Harpswell, checks returns on her cell phone Tuesday night at the Embassy Suites in Portland. The citizen’s initiative to end bear baiting was defeated.