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Hunters In Maine Are Legally Baiting Bears With Donuts — But Perhaps For Not Much Longer

A ballot initiative asks voters whether several controversial bear hunting tactics should be illegal, dividing hunters and conservationists.
October 27, 2014, 9:35pm
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A single ballot question in Maine has hunters, biologists, animal rights' activists, and local businesses at odds as the debate over three bear-hunting tactics — baiting, hounding, and trapping — moves to a vote on Nov. 4.

But the lines between the parties are not so clear. The State Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has sided with the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, stating that the practices help to control Maine's bear population, the largest in the country, and reduce conflicts between humans and wild bears. Some hunters, though, have joined the movement supporting the ballot, arguing that the tactics are unsportsmanlike and give hunters an unfair advantage over the bears.

The most controversial tactic has proven to be baiting, a practice in which hunters use high-calorie human foods, such as molasses or donuts, to draw bears to a specific location to be shot, sometimes beginning up to 30 days before hunting season opens.

"Baiting is the absolute worst thing you can do if you're trying to keep a stable bear population and minimize nuisance complaints," Katie Hansberry, of Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting (MFBH), told VICE News. "The hunters that are part of this coalition don't even consider it hunting because there's such an unfair advantage."

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MFBH gathered tens of thousands of signatures to place the ban on the ballot.

Maine residents voted down a similar ballot measure in 2004, 53 percent to 47 percent.

David Trahan, director of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, says tactics like baiting help control bear populations, protecting young livestock and reducing human-bear conflicts. And while the practices are legal, hunters who are opposed to them are in no way obligated to use them.

"No hunter has to do it," Trahan told VICE News. "But the biologists are the ones that tell us that they need those tools to manage bears."

Maine's Fisheries Department says four decades of research demonstrates that baiting does not increase bear numbers.

'The reality is that there is no relationship between the size of the bear population and conflict levels.'

But the relationship between baiting and bear populations is "a catch-22," says John Beecham, an expert in human-bear conflicts with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and a former employee of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

In years of sparse food, female bears are more likely to produce a smaller litter, if they reproduce at all. Providing a steady stream of high-calorie food also means a steadier stream of bear cubs, Beecham said, even if that food makes it easier for hunters to take some bears out.

"[The agency] can make an argument that they need to shoot more bears because they need to reduce conflicts, but the reality is that that's not a very accurate argument," Beecham told VICE News. "You can't back that up with data. It's not there."

Just how much, and what kind of food is used to lure in bears is unclear. Trahan says granola and molasses are generally the bait of choice, though junk foods, like doughnuts, are often cited.

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"It makes a good line," Trahan told VICE News — so good, in fact, that a Portland Press Herald columnist's off-the-cuff calculation of 7 million pounds of doughnut-heavy bait has become a widely mentioned statistic.

The hunting tactics at question, though, are ultimately more about the good practice of the sport itself, Beecham said, noting that non-hunters tend to be friendlier toward hunters at the ballot if they view the activity as fair and not detrimental to wildlife populations.

"The whole issue is not a question of conservation or of management as much as it is a question of what people consider fair chase tactics," Beecham told VICE News. "The reality is that there is no relationship between the size of the bear population and conflict levels. It's all about how people behave in bear habitat."

Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro

Image via Flickr