There will be no bear referendum or Constitutional amendments to protect hunting in 2016

Kerri Bickford Capitol twoSportsmen dodged a bullet but may be disappointed that their Constitutional amendments are about to be killed by the Maine legislature. The best news is that the Humane Society of the United States has decided not to pursue another bear referendum in 2016.

Here’s the inside story of what has happened. A bill that made significant changes in the law to assure that Maine citizens circulate petitions and witness signatures for ballot measures is on its way to enactment. That fixes one problem, removing out-of-staters from the process of gathering signatures.

This fall, Maine citizens are likely to vote on a Constitutional amendment to require that half of the signatures for a citizen ballot initiative come from the First Congressional District and half from the Second Congressional District. The Humane Society of the United States gathered 58 percent of their signatures for the 2014 bear referendum in just 22 towns, mostly in Cumberland County. 46,463 of their 63,626 signatures came from the First Congressional District.

When I managed ballot measure campaigns, I figured out that I could get enough signatures to qualify an initiative for the ballot by setting up in 100 voting precincts on election day, most of them in southern Maine. You could probably, today, get enough signatures by stationing signature gatherers in 8 or 10 southern Maine cities on election day.

I can’t say for certain that this Constitutional amendment will be on the ballot, because sportsmen’s groups are struggling to get the necessary votes of Senate Democrats to reach the 2/3 threshold in that body. If this does make the ballot and is enacted by the people in November, initiators of citizen ballot measures will be forced to get out into northern Maine and build support for their initiative. And really, to make the ballot, a group should demonstrate statewide support for their initiative.

Ironically, Governor Paul LePage’s legal counsel told some legislators that the Governor would veto this Congressional amendment. Apparently she and the governor didn’t know that he doesn’t have that authority. Ballot measures must get a 2/3 vote in the House and in the Senate, and if they do, they go directly onto the ballot. The Governor doesn’t get a shot at them. Good thing, I guess!

Bear Referendum

While the group won’t make a public announcement, HSUS will not initiate a ballot measure in 2016. This doesn’t mean they’ve given up on the idea. But sportsmen will get a bit of a break before having to defend these practices in another referendum.

In an earlier announcement, the national leader of HSUS had said they would be gathering signatures for a 2016 referendum to ban bear hunting with hounds and bear trapping.

Katie Hansberry, the Maine lobbyist for HSUS, gave me this statement for this column: “We have decided not to pursue a new measure for the 2016 ballot, and instead will focus our efforts on working with representative government in the legislature and IF&W to find a reasonable compromise on these issues that works for all the major stakeholders. We have been encouraged by our discussions with legislators and want to take some time to see if things move in the right direction as it is clear that the majority of a Mainers believe bear hounding and trapping are unacceptable, while there are more diverse views on the subject of baiting.”

Their decision to abandon the 2016 campaign is really good news, because the sporting community is tapped out financially and needs to focus its limited resources on the 2015 Constitutional amendment. I am told that HSUS will not contest that amendment, more good news.

Hunting Amendments

Four Constitutional amendments were proposed by legislators and sporting groups this session. Two would have prohibited citizen ballot initiatives on fisheries and wildlife issues. The other two sought to guarantee the right to hunt and fish. The latter, by my research, were not worded correctly to actually achieve the sponsors’ goals.

Although the bills drew strong support from sporting groups and big turnouts at public hearings, the truth is that sportsmen didn’t have nearly enough support in either the House or Senate to win the necessary 2/3 vote to get these Constitutional amendments on the ballot. So the lobbyists for sporting groups quietly spread the word that the bills could be killed.

The two Constitutional amendments that would have banned wildlife ballot measures were killed by unanimous votes in the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. The two Constitutional amendments to establish the right to hunt were killed by nearly unanimous votes in the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee. None of them have any chance in the House or the Senate.

Good News

A resolution is moving through the legislative that will give the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee an opportunity, in the 2016 legislative session, to create, “a bill concerning the protection of Maine’s outdoor heritage.”

This very general language will give the committee the authority to create legislation on any of the issues outlined above, including Constitutional amendments. But a lot of work will have to be done before there is any chance of getting one of these amendments through the legislature and onto the ballot. And of course, then sportsmen will be faced with the difficult and very expensive task of raising enough money to convince the public that hunting should be protected in the Constitution or that the public’s opportunities to initiate and vote on wildlife issues should come to end.

While I am sure lots of sportsmen – many of whom strongly supported these Constitutional amendments – may be disappointed by lack of action on them, they ought to be relieved. A lot more work will have to be done before they have any chance of enacting one of these Constitutional amendments.

And of course, sportsmen should be very happy about the HSUS decision.

PHOTO: by Kerri Bickford, Kerrizma Designz

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.