Wed, Oct 22, 2014 ●
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The Universal Notebook: Don't feed the bears

Opinion

The Universal Notebook: Don't feed the bears

Let’s get something straight before we start: I was born and brought up in Maine and I am not opposed to hunting for sustenance or for sport.

That said, I will be voting Yes on Question 1 on Nov. 4.

Question 1 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?”

Yes, of course. I voted against bear baiting back in 2004, when Maine voters rejected a ban by a margin of 53-47 percent. I expect the margin to be just about the same a decade later, only this time in favor of a ban.

For much of human history, “bear baiting” referred to the barbaric practice of tethering a bear in a ring and letting dogs loose on it. Very entertaining. Lots of blood and guts, fur and fury.

In the 21st century, with hunting in all forms on the decline, Maine is one of about a dozen states where bear baiting has come to mean the practice of setting out sweets to attract bears and then gunning them down while they munch stale donuts.

Very entertaining I’m sure, but it’s time for bear baiting to go the way of, well, bear baiting.

Opponents of the referendum, a coalition of hunting and trapping groups, are pretty much running a campaign of fear. The Save Maine’s Bear Hunt website is filled with stories of bears roaming loose in the suburbs. Without bear baiting, they suggest, the state will be overrun by marauding bruins. It’s a matter of public safety.

Maybe, but only 61 people have been killed by black bears in North America since 1900. That’s about one every two years. By comparison, since 1940, 9,200 people in America have been killed by lightning.

Thanks, but I’ll take my chances with the bears.

Oddly enough, the number of complaints about nuisance bears in Maine is up from 400 last year to 605 already this year. You don’t suppose the recent surge in bear complaints could have anything to do with the upcoming referendum, do you? Nah, that’s just too cynical.

As it happens, daughter Nora, who lives up in the White Mountains, had a bear climb through a screen window into her house a couple of summers back. It was a mother bear looking for food for her two cubs, who stayed outside on the porch while Momma was breaking and entering. Just yelling and flicking the lights on and off sent the bears lumbering back into the woods. Nora did not report the incident because she did not want wildlife officials trapping the bear and relocating it, possibly separating it from her young.

As an environmental educator, Nora understands that bears aren’t the problem, people are. Not only is wildlife habitat increasingly being developed for residential and commercial use, but human beings are also habituating bears to human food. Feeding bears, whether through dumps, bird feeders, handouts or bait sites, endangers both people and bears.

So don’t feed the bears.

Bear baiting is defended as a form of wildlife management. But it’s hard to take anyone – wildlife biologist, game warden, hunter or gubernatorial candidate – seriously who thinks a barrel full of doughnuts is a legitimate form of wildlife management. (Gov. Paul LePage and his two election rivals, Democrat Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler, all apparently support bear baiting. LePage doesn’t surprise me; the other two disappoint me.)

The fact is that the bear population in Maine (31,000) has been increasing even with baiting. Common sense would suggest that 5,000 bait sites around the state providing 7 million pounds of junk food to bears might be responsible for some of the increase, especially given that even when shooting bears in a barrel, hunters are only successful about 25 percent of the time.

In states such as Colorado, Oregon and Washington, where baiting has been outlawed, the bear population has stabilized. But then I am always skeptical of assertions that wildlife will overpopulate if man doesn’t harvest wild animals. We are not the regulators. I’m pretty confident Mother Nature will find the right balance if we just leave the poor creatures alone.

My bottom line: I support fair chase, but I oppose bear baiting. If a hunter is skilled enough to locate, track and shoot a bear, by all means go to it. But if a hunter just waits for dogs to tree a bear and then shoots it or, worse, just sits around a trash can waiting to ambush a bear, he’s not really a sportsman at all.

Do it right, or don’t do it at all. Yes on 1.