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When voters in Michigan faced a referendum to ban the use of bait and hounds in bear hunting, they had a choice: Vote for the ban, or choose a second option to let the state wildlife commission regulate bear hunting.

Voters chose the latter, giving wildlife experts the power to decide what's best for bears and hunters in that state.

When voters in Maine go to the polls in November, they won't be given that choice. It's yea or nay on a referendum that would ban the use of bait, traps and hounds in bear hunts.

"We decided to let the referendum stand on its own or fall on its own, and not pitch around the corner of the plate, so to speak," said Rep. Matthew Dunlap, D-Old Town, House chairman of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee.

Maine's upcoming bear vote in November reflects a debate that has played out across the country, with differing results.

Michigan voters rejected a proposal to ban the use of hounds and bait, while those in Oregon, Colorado and Washington approved bans similar to Maine's initiative.

In Massachusetts, the practice of bear baiting was eliminated in 1970 by state regulation. In 1996, voters affirmed that position and also banned the use of hounds in the hunt.

In Washington and Oregon, the bear kill dropped after bans were put in place, even though those states more than doubled the number of bear-hunting permits they issued. Colorado's bear kill increased after the ban, but the number of bear-hunting permits had nearly quadrupled.

EFFECT OF BANS

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife surveyed officials in Colorado, Oregon, Massachusetts and Washington to find out how the bans affected hunting and the bear population in their states. On its Web site, the department posted a nine-page summary of findings, with an analysis of how officials think a ban would affect Maine.

Mark Stadler, director of the department's division of wildlife, said the agency believes baiting, hounding and trapping are accepted ways of managing the bear population. He said his department, backed by Gov. John Baldacci, does not use ethics as a guide when making policy decisions.

The department relies on what works, he said -- and for at least 30 years, setting bait to attract bears to where hunters can get a clean shot at them has proven effective in controlling the state's bear population, Stadler said.

The department, which employs at least four bear biologists with master's degrees or doctorates in bear management, allows only what's necessary to keep the population at a stable level, he said.

They rely on hunters to take between 3,500 and 4,000 bears a year to achieve a good balance, said Stadler, who's worked for the department for 26 years.

Although some suggest that Maine would simply need to increase the number of bear hunters to get the same kill each year, Stadler said he thinks the bear-hunting market is saturated. In the analysis posted on the Web site, the department concludes that nonresidents, who make up about half of the state's bear hunters, would go elsewhere if they can't use bait in Maine.

They could go to New Hampshire, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick or Ontario instead, according to the analysis.

Maine is the only state in the country that continues to allow the use of leg-hold traps in the bear hunt, a method rarely used by hunters, Stadler said.

"Those traps are large, heavy and expensive," he said. "The vast majority of them are hanging on camp walls."

The department and some hunters also use foot snares to capture bears. Stadler described the snares as having a loop on the end that goes over the front paw of the bear. The department uses the snares when tagging bears as part of a tracking program. By law, hunters must check the snares every 24 hours, he said.

The practice of hunting with hounds originated in Europe -- dogs chase the bear into a tree so a hunter can shoot it.

Baiting is a more recent phenomenon and is used for bears, but not for other wildlife, such as deer. Baiting deer isn't necessary to manage the population, which is actually on the decline in some parts of the state, Stadler said.

Oregon voters in 1994 approved a measure to ban the use of dogs and bait in the bear hunt. It also prevented hunters from using hounds when hunting cougars.

Oregon hunters have found other ways to kill bears by finding their natural food sources, by hunting in eastern parts of the state where the forest isn't as thick and by sounding predator calls, said Don Whittaker, a staff biologist with the game program of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Department.

He said the change forced the state to find other ways to manage the population, namely by issuing more bear-hunting permits. Hunters had a high rate of success when they could use bait and hounds, but now have a low rate of success, Whittaker said.

Nuisance calls went up in the year before and a few years after the vote, something Whittaker attributes more to press attention to the topic than to actual problems with bears.

BANS VS. LIMITS

The debate in Michigan started when a disgruntled landowner in the Upper Peninsula got tired of hunters trespassing on his land. So he moved forward with an initiative to ban the use of hounds in bear hunting and added the baiting ban in an attempt to get help from animal rights groups, said Michigan State University professor R. Ben Peyton, who describes himself as a professor in the human dimensions of wildlife management.

The second proposal -- which was not a competing measure because voters could support both -- put the state's Natural Resources Commission in charge of bear hunting, which had been previously been controlled by the commission director. It was a subtle change in who would be in charge, but it was enough to convince voters not to go for the 1996 ban, Peyton said.

"Most people in the public aren't that tied up in the issue," he said. "When they had this alternative, they said, 'We'll leave it up to the people who are supposed to know.' "

In Maine, the movement to limit the ways bears can be hunted began with Robert Fisk Jr., a former state senator and executive director of the Maine Friends for Animals, a state animal-rights group. Fisk and other volunteers gathered nearly double the number of signatures needed to place the question on the November ballot.

Before launching the campaign, Fisk said he sought help from national animal-rights groups, who have contributed money to the effort.

Wayne Pacelle, chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the United States, said during a recent phone interview that his group has spent years working to eliminate what they consider "inhumane and unsporting bear-hunting practices."

Pacelle points to the 1990s, when voters in Colorado, Oregon and Washington approved their measures.

"The reality is, this is not an experiment," he said. "This has been done in a number of states. It works just fine."

He argues that by placing bait in the woods, guides and hunters are teaching bears it's OK to eat human food and to ignore the scent of humans that emanates from bait piles. Park officials routinely tell visitors not the feed the bears, he said.

Hunters, and the guides who prepare bait sites for them, make bait a regular part of their hunting practices.

Western states have shown some success with other hunting methods, but some argue it's not fair to compare the woods out West to the wooded areas here.

For example, the baiting ban works in Colorado because there is enough open space where hunters can find them, said Peyton, the Michigan professor. That's probably not the case in Maine, he said, and he points to New Jersey as a state that is struggling to handle the bear population.

New Jersey's Fish and Game Council gave final approval last week for a bear hunt, one year after New Jersey's first bear hunt in more than three decades. The hunts are intended to decrease New Jersey's growing black bear population, estimated last year at 3,200.

State wildlife officials say 328 bears were killed in last year's hunt, and about 500 cubs were expected to be born this year. There are no limits on bear-hunting methods in New Jersey.

The idea that Maine's terrain is different from the rest of the country -- and therefore it's necessary to bait here but not other places -- is false, Pacelle said.

"There's nothing magical about Maine that makes it so different," he said. "In fact, Maine is arguably a state less susceptible to bear-human conflicts than other states."

Peyton said bear-human contacts should be something voters consider before they go to the ballot box. He said bears are generally not a creature to be feared, but that there have been incidents where black bears have hurt humans.

If hunters cannot use bait to kill bears, the number of bears will increase, he said.

"If we deprive (hunters) of methods to hunt bear, we better be prepared to pay the consequences," he said.

POPULATIONS

In most states, the bear population is increasing, in part because there are better laws to protect them from being overhunted and because they are able to adapt to their surroundings, said Jim Cardoza, a bear biologist with the Massachusetts Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Environmental Law.

Bay State hunters take bears by finding their habitat and shooting them. Last year, hunters there took a record 153 bears, but officials would like to see the kill up around 200 to get the growing population under control, he said.

The most recent bear population estimates in Massachusetts show the population is much smaller than the one in Maine -- about 1,800 bears. But Cardoza said the population has grown about 10 percent a year since the last estimate was done in 1998.

He said animal-rights activists led the successful effort to eliminate the use of hounds in the hunt.

"I don't think it's inhumane when it was properly regulated," said Cardoza, who's been with the department for 35 years. "We had permits, we limited the number of dogs. But that's what the voice of the people decided to do, so that's what they did."

Nuisance calls in Massachusetts have grown since 1970, the year the department started logging them. At first, farmers called in to complain. Now, those who live in the suburbs call in to say black bears are getting into their garbage, he said.

Bears want the dog food, sunflower seeds and fat scraps found in household trash, officials say.

"It's like a child who will do very well on his vegetables, but he'd rather go to McDonald's and have the burgers and fries," Cardoza said.

Whittaker, the Oregon staff biologist, also blames people for leaving garbage out to attract bears more than the animals themselves.

"A bear lives and dies by its belly," he said. "The belly rules a bear's life -- literally."

Susan M. Cover -- 623-1056

scover@centralmaine.com

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