The bears in Maine eat better than those in most states, but it's not necessarily good for them.
Donuts, pizza and other tempting treats are commonly used by hunters in the Pine Tree State to bait the animals, luring them out of the woods and into an open area where they can be shot.
Though the practice is legal right now, that could change Tuesday, when voters weigh in on a proposition that would forbid bear baiting and two other popular hunting practices.
The initiative, Question 1, made it on the Nov. 4 ballot with the help of Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, a group that wants to establish protection for Maine's bears and the dogs that hunt them. Endorsed by national groups like the Humane Society as well as local ones like the Wildlife Alliance of Maine, the coalition says that baiting is not only unsportsmanlike, but dangerous.
They say the method familiarizes bears to humans, which can lead to potentially violent encounters. They also claim that the method creates a better-fed population that reproduces more frequently.
"Baiting is extremely an problematic and counterproductive practice," Katie Hansberry, campaign director for Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, said. "Providing a consistent source of high-calorie food every year is the worst thing you can do to manage a bear population."
Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting has spent $860,500 to run almost 2,200 ads in favor of the proposition, according to the Center for Public Integrity, which analyzed research by Kanta Media/CMA tracking political advertising. Meanwhile, the Maine Wildlife Conservation Council — the group behind the Save Maine's Bear Hunt campaign, which looks to deter voters from passing the proposition — has spent $712,700 to run around 1,800 ads.
Members of the campaign's coalition, which include the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance and the Maine Tourism Association, claim that the methods are necessary to effectively control a growing bear population.
Today, Maine is home to more than 30,000 bears, 30% more than lived in the state 10 years ago, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
"We have the second-largest bear population in the country," said IFW Wildlife Division Director Judy Camuso. "And yet we have relatively few nuisance complaints — about 500 a year, which is well below what surrounding states have — so right now our system is working quite well."
While baiting is the most popular bear-hunting method in Maine, two other methods — hounding, or the use of dogs to hunt, and trapping — would also become illegal if the proposition passes.
Although Maine is the only state to allow all three of these practices, 32 other states allow baiting, hounding or both, according to Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
"The proposition would eliminate the three most effective tools we have to control the bear population," Camuso said. "If we lose those tools, the population will rise and the bears will move to areas where they are less common, so we'll see an increase in nuisance complaints and an increase in the severity of those complaints."
The vote, which could have implications nationwide, is being watched closely across the country.
National hunting groups are opposed to the referendum because it could lead to reduced hunting rights in other states, while animal-rights activists hope it encourages the outlawing of purportedly cruel hunting practices across the country.
"Even though the policy effect is confined to Maine, the proposition if passed will eliminate the state with the most permissive bear hunting laws in the country," Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, said. "That will further isolate the states that allow baiting and hounding, increasing pressure on them to reform their archaic practices."
If passed, the proposition would continue to allow the practice of "fair chase," which is in use today by just 7% of Maine bear hunters, according to IFW.
"Today, we have woods full of hunters choosing the easy way, which excludes people trying to be better hunters, to learn the animal's habits, to learn the animal's movement patterns," Daryl DeJoy, a certified Maine guide and executive director of the Wildlife Alliance of Maine, said. "I believe that when woods become the domain of real hunters again, we will see people wanting to come to Maine because we are a very unusual state with a lot to offer in terms of wilderness."
Bear hunters, residents and non-residents, spent more than $53 million in Maine in 2013, according to a study conducted on behalf of the Maine Office of Tourism and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlifeby Southwick Associates, a company specializing in measuring the economic impact of outdoor recreation.
In 2004, Maine voters rejected a similar measure 53% to 47%.
A poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center found in October that 57% of Maine voters oppose Question 1, and 35% support it.
Maine Bear Hunting Reform Narrowly Rejected by Voters
Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting expressed disappointment about the election results on Question 1, but thanked more than a quarter million Mainers who voted to end bear baiting, hounding, and trapping.
"We are grateful to so many Maine voters for supporting this proposed reform, and we look forward to working with them and with ‘no’ and non-voters to outlaw the practices of bear hounding and trapping, because we believe there’s substantial agreement on that issue."