Maine needs a bare knuckled bear debate

120513YNPD30082-MThe only way we’ll get a real debate about bear hunting and trapping is to clear the room of reporters and moderators and let the two sides go at each other – a bare knuckled bear debate.

Otherwise, we’re going to get the standard questions and the rote memorized answers – and Maine voters won’t know any more about bear hunting and trapping when the campaign ends than they do today – which is next to nothing, judging from the questions people are asking me.

Here’s how it might go. To make this simple, we’ll call those opposed to the referendum the Opponents, and those who support the referendum the Supporters. Each side would get five minute opening statements and then we’d get right into it.

While the opening statements are being delivered, you can get your beer and snacks. You’ve already heard those statements, boiled down to 30 second TV ads.

Opponents would ask Supporters a question and be allowed one follow-up after getting the answer. Then Supporters would ask Opponents a question and also get a follow-up question. If I had my way, we’d do this in front of a live audience, supporters on one side of the room, opponents on the other, and allow cheering and booing. We might as well have some fun with this, don’t you think?

If anyone is still standing at the end of the debate, each side would get five minutes for a closing statement.

To move this along, I’ve created some provocative questions for each side to ask the other. Supporters get to ask the first question, because, after all, it’s their initiative.

Supporters to Opponents: Why did you reject our offer to give up the referendum initiative in return for your support for legislation to ban bear hounding and trapping? Very few hunters participate in those two sports, even fewer bears are taken with these methods, and they are not needed to manage bear populations. Didn’t you risk the entire bear hunting industry, which relies on baiting, in order to save these two little-used methods?

OK, they snuck in a second question there but we want this to be free-wheeling so we’ll let it go.

Opponents to Supporters: Why did you offer to let us continue to bait bears if you think it is cruel and unfair? And why does your referendum initiative allow the use of all three methods to deal with problem bears in the future if you think those methods are cruel?

Yes, we gave opponents a chance to even things up with two questions of their own.

Supporters to Opponents: Why is Maine the only state that allows bear trapping? Are all the other states wrong on this?

Yes, I know, they got two questions again. Let’s just let this go and see what happens.

Opponents to Supporters: Have you ever seen a bear in the wild? How many have you seen in, let’s say, the last 10 years? It’s unusual, isn’t it? Do you really think free range hunting – based on the hope and prayer that the hunter might see a bear – is going to harvest as many or more bears than does baiting?

Supporters to Opponents: We don’t see many bears because they are timid animals. Do you agree? Do we really need to be scared of them? Aren’t you ashamed of trying to make people scared of bears, when they are unlikely to even see a bear in their entire lifetime?

Opponents to Supporters: Well, now we’re onto something. Don’t you think it’s better to allow a hunter to bring a bear into his bait site and be selective about which bear to shoot and especially to avoid shooting sows with cubs, than expecting the hunter to happen onto a bear and shoot it as it races away, with no chance to be selective or to avoid shooting a sow with cubs. Isn’t baiting a better way to protect sows and cubs?

Supporters to Opponents: Isn’t hounding a controversial practice? The largest sportsmen’s group in Montana, two years ago, defeated a proposal to allow bear hunting with hounds in that state. And Maine had to crack down on nonresidents who were coming here with hounds to hunt bears and then going home and leaving some of their hounds here in the woods. That’s when the legislature changed the law and required nonresidents who hunt with hounds to employ and hunt with a Maine guide. This has been a problem for a long time. Why do you cling to it?

Opponents to Supporters: How much money will you spend on your campaign and how will you spend it? Based on your campaign, will voters know any more about bears and bear hunting after the election than they do today? If so, what will they know?

Supporters to Opponents: Same questions, right back at you.

Opponents to Supporters:  Hunting with dogs is a great heritage and is allowed for many species including deer in some states. Do you think it is unfair and cruel to hunt deer with hounds? Have you tried to stop that practice in any state? Would you support that practice in Maine?

Supporters to Opponents: Would you support hunting deer with dogs in Maine? For that matter, would you support allowing deer hunters to use bait? Turkey hunters too? Hunters could then be more selective!

Opponents to Supporters: You accuse DIF&W scientists of being biased in favor of sportsmen, but offer no evidence. Do you have any evidence of that? And do you realize sportsmen pay all the bills at DIF&W? Have you ever supported our efforts to win public funding for DIF&W?

Supporters to Opponents: Shouldn’t you worry that by using DIF&W’s wildlife biologists and game wardens in your campaign ads and in other ways, that you are ruining their credibility with the nonhunting and nontrapping public?

Opponents to Supporters: If you win, do you realize that Maine will have to significantly increase bear hunting opportunities, including reinstituting a spring hunt. Will you support an expansion of bear hunting opportunities, including longer seasons, lower fees or no fees, and a spring hunt?

I also wish we could have an entire debate about the impacts of banning these hunting practices in Washington and Oregon. The best information I’ve heard to date has been on Bob Duchesne’s Saturday morning radio shows, when he interviewed wildlife biologists in those and other states.

You can listen to those shows here:

I’d also love it if each side would show the ads of the other side and critique them. Maybe that could be done as a back and forth between the two sides. Show an ad from one side and let opponents and supporters go at it. Then show an ad from the other side and go at it again. It would be a whole lot more fun than watching the ads themselves!

I’m sorry to report that there is absolutely positively no chance that we’ll have any of the debates I’ve proposed here. But it sure would be fun and informative if we could.

If you’d like to suggest more questions for either side to ask, go ahead! The best I can do is to share all of our questions with those who are hosting debates and hope some of them get asked.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website,, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.