New bear referendum coming in 2014

Ten years after Maine voters defeated an attempt to ban bear hunting with bait and dogs, a new ballot measure on the same issues may be on the way for 2014. The Humane Society of United States has filed its intentions to initiate a new bear referendum with Maine’s Secretary of State. HSUS was the organization that placed these issues on the ballot in 2004 and spent millions trying to convince Maine voters to support them.

HSUS has also proposed a bear bill in this session of the legislature. Their bill, LD 1474, sponsored by Representative Denise Harlow of Portland, will be scheduled for a public hearing later this month. It would prohibit bear hunting with dogs and bear trapping, eliminate any chance of Maine restoring a spring bear hunt, prohibit the sale of bear galls, and substantially increase penalties for bear poaching.

That bill has little chance of success at the legislature. But the referendum is another story. The national lobbyist for HSUS told me that the ballot initiative will include all the things in their legislative bill, plus a ban on bear baiting. That sets up a rerun of the 2004 initiative, where the ballot question read, “Do you want to make it a crime to hunt bears with bait, traps, or dogs, expect to protect property, public safety or for research?”

In case you didn’t know, bear baiting is the most common practice used by bear hunting guides and outfitters. Without it, there would be no bear hunting industry in Maine.

I raised $1.5 million for the sportsmen’s campaign in opposition to that 2004 HSUS ballot initiative, and the Board of Directors of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine hired my sister Edie Smith to manage that campaign. Polling showed us well behind when we began the campaign, but we turned that around, winning a fairly narrow victory, 53 percent to 47 percent. Honestly, we had to do everything right to win. Dr. Christian Potholm’s polling and strategy guided us to victory.

Although I raised much of the money out of state, Maine guides and outfitters sacrificed financially to make sure we had enough money to win. It took years for some of them to recover financially.

Today, I am not sure the money is there to win this referendum a second time. Maine’s bear hunting industry is in decline, mostly due to the prolonged recession. And polling once again shows us well behind with the public on these issues. HSUS has grown substantially since 2004, and has an almost unlimited amount of money to throw at us this time.

This sets up an intriguing – but remote – possibility. If HSUS was to somehow win its legislative battle this session and get LD 1474 enacted and signed into law, it would probably end its effort to place a bear initiative on the ballot next year. That would give bear baiting – the practice that drives the state’s bear hunting industry – a pass.

No one really wants to talk about this, or even think about it. And honestly, it is so remote that I thought about leaving it out of this column. But on the other hand, it might be the only way to head off a very tough battle in 2014.

So here are my questions: is the money there to defend bear hunting in a 2014 referendum? Who will raise it? Who will donate it? Who will be responsible for polling and strategy? Who will manage the campaign?

As we approach the public hearing and work sessions on LD 1474, these questions will be foremost in the minds of many sportsmen, bear hunting guides, outfitters, and sporting camp owners.

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, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.