It’s a great question. Is it best to leave wildlife management up to the professionals at Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, or continue to let the people have a say through ballot initiatives? Despite a focus on the 2014 bear referendum, and the recent promise from the Humane Society of the United States to launch a new ballot measure that would ban bear trapping and hunting bear with hounds, the issue of prohibiting those ballot measures is not as simple as you might think.
And if you are anticipating a great ballot battle this year over these issues, you are going to be disappointed. Both sportsmen and HSUS are aiming their respective proposals at the 2016 general election ballot. In fact, sportsmen advocating for the Constitutional amendment have already asked the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee to postpone action on their proposal until next year.
Sportsmen want more time to educate and prepare the public for this issue, and also feel their chances of victory are greatest in a high-turnout election. HSUS also thinks its chances of victory on another bear referendum will be better next year, when turnout for the Presidential election brings out more voters.
The usual cast of characters were at the Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs (VLA) Committee’s hearing yesterday on two proposed Constitutional amendments, LDs 754 and 1084, that would amend the Maine Constitution to exclude wildlife issues from citizen initiatives. Representative Steve Wood of Greene, a Maine guide, sponsored LD 754, testifying that wildlife ballot measures allow, “for outside influences to discredit our experts, science, and facts that impact our established hunting and fishing laws, laws that have been established by the experts in this particular field of study.”
Representative Michelle Dunphy of Old Town, the sponsor of LD 1084, presented an interesting history of wildlife ballot measures, starting in 1936 with a proposal to overturn a law that required sportsmen to purchase an annual license to hunt or fish. That effort failed by a vote of 53.8 percent to 46.2 percent. This history raised a question that some VLA Committee members have asked me: are sportsmen willing to give up their own opportunities to change wildlife management decisions through the ballot box? Good question!
I worked on two other wildlife management ballot campaigns that Michelle mentioned: In 1983 we defeated an attempt to stop the newly-established moose hunt, and in 2004 we defeated the HSUS ballot measure to ban bear hunting with bait and dogs and bear trapping. That campaign was repeated, with the same result in 2014. Which brings us to today’s hearing.
I particularly appreciated Rep. Dunphy’s thoughtful testimony. “I trust Maine voters to make the right choices,” she said. “And when I say the ‘right choices,’ what I mean by that is that people cast their votes in thoughtfulness, with deep commitment to doing what they think is right, whether that means a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote. My trust in Maine voters has been borne out not only on wildlife issues, but almost everything that appears on the ballot. But wildlife management issues are about more than just trust.
“There is perhaps no greater divide in Maine politics today than the divide between north and south and the urban and rural centers of the state…. I believe our efforts should be focused on finding ways to work together across the state, not more issues to divide us… Nothing – absolutely nothing – divides our communities like debates over hunting, trapping and wildlife management.” She argued that it was time to give voters the chance to decide “if they’re ready to put (these debates) aside.”
That’s a good argument. No matter what your personal position is on this Constitutional amendment, let the people decide!
Michelle also told committee members about the complex management of wildlife in her city of Old Town, situated on part of the Marsh Island Game Preserve, and reported, “I trust the processes Maine uses to manage wildlife.”
Dave Trahan of SAM, Don Kleiner of the Maine Professional Guides Association, and James Cote, who managed the recent sportsmen’s bear campaign and is now a lobbyist for the Maine Trappers Association, led a group testifying in favor of both LD 754 and LD 1084. Trahan said, “Ironically, the Maine referendum was created in 1908 to allow Maine municipalities to protect their right to control local utility infrastructure, true local control, and has since evolved into a system for outside interests to promote their national agenda.” He noted that “Maine people will still be allowed to change all aspects of wildlife management through the legislature.”
Don Kleiner explained the North American Model of wildlife management that, “recognizes science as a basis for informed management and decision-making processes.” He also noted that “North America is unique in the world in that the fish and wildlife resources are held in public trust.”
“The referendum process was designed as a way for the majority of people to enact a law without their representatives performing the normal thought and compromise that each of you does every day in this legislature,” Kleiner told VLA Committee members. “I would argue that it is a blunt instrument – lacking the fine control needed for the most effective policy making.”
The testimony of James Cote was very impressive, and it’s posted it on my website if you’d like to read it all. “Combine tone-deaf advocacy organizations with hundreds of millions of dollars in resources and sparsely populated rural states (like Maine) with large populations of charismatic fauna and you’ve got a recipe for disaster when it comes to wildlife management,” said Cote.
I don’t think anyone could put it any better than that! Cote was among those who asked the committee to carry over one of the Constitutional amendment bills to the 2016 session so it can be on the ballot later that year.
Katie Hansberry, the state director of The Humane Society of the United States, led the charge against the Constitutional amendments.
“The principle of direct democracy and civic participation are an important part of our history. In 1908, Maine became the first state east of the Mississippi to adopt a constitutional provision for statewide initiative and referendum,” testified Hansberry. “This right is cherished by Maine voters and deserves preservation, not deliberate destruction. By denying Mainers their longstanding constitutional right to vote on important issues affecting wildlife – a natural resource held in the public trust – and how that resource is managed, these bills suppress voters and are a shameful subversion of democracy.”
On Thursday, the legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee will host public hearings on two bills that would send Constitutional amendments to the voters that would establish the right to hunt and fish. Representative Wood sponsored one of those bills two. Stay tuned!