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27
AUGUSTA -- When Larry Ferrell retired to Maine three years ago, he wanted to hunt bear.

A lifelong hunter, he's killed deer, turkey, coyote, ducks and pheasants. He never shot a black bear -- and knew just where to go to get one.

But when he approached the landowner to get permission, he was told many of the good bear hunting sites already were taken by professional guides. He got one site. As he sat and waited for his bear, however, he heard human voices.

It wasn't a good place to hunt.

He was told there was another option -- pay a guide $1,000.

The issue of access to the woods is one of the reasons Ferrell and other Maine hunters say they'll vote in favor of the referendum to ban the use of bait, hounds and traps in the bear hunt. The woods are clogged with commercial outfitters who take up all the good spots, leaving little prime bear territory for Maine hunters, they say.

"What happened to me is typical of the bear industry," said Ferrell, who lives in Newport. "Everybody I know who hunts up there has been harassed."

Ferrell, a member of a group called Hunters for Fair Bear Hunting, said bears belong to everyone in Maine, not just big companies that own the land or the guides who pay to lease it from them. Land is monopolized in other places, said Ferrell, who's hunted in more than a dozen states and three Canadian provinces, but it shouldn't be like that in Maine.

Those who oppose the referendum on the Nov. 2 ballot say there are options for Maine hunters who don't want to hire a guide. Al Cowperthwaite, executive director of the North Maine Woods, controls 3,000 bait sites on the land he manages. Of those, 2,700 are for commercial outfitters and 300 are reserved for personal use.

His group, a nonprofit that manages nearly 4 million acres, serves as a go-between for landowners and hunters.

"A lot of guides were competing for spots, and landowners were not interested in getting in the middle of it," he said.

That was back in 1986, when the program first started. Now, all sites are mapped using Global Positioning System technology and are separated by more than a half mile to increase safety and reduce the chance for conflict.

For hunters such as Ferrell who don't want to hire a guide, North Maine Woods has a waiting list.

That's because most hunters request a particular area and need to wait for another hunter to give up a spot before they can hunt there, said Melanie Cote, North Maine Woods commercial use manager.

She estimated a couple dozen hunters are on the waiting list -- some of them will wait more than two years for a site. But if a hunter asks for a spot that's not well-known or in demand, he or she may get in faster, she said.

Commercial guides pay $46 per site; individual hunters pay $30. Cowperthwaite said he made it a point to set aside land for individual hunters when the program started, although at the time there wasn't much demand from individuals.

His group manages 3.8 million acres inside the boundary of the North Maine Woods and about 300,000 acres outside of it. Paper companies, families who own large tracts of land and conservation groups all rely on the nonprofit to manage the land.

The access issue made it difficult for the Fin & Feather Club of Millinocket to decide how to vote on the referendum, said Darrell Morrow, spokesman for the group.

On one hand, many group members are upset about the difficulty getting access to the woods. But the overriding theme was the potential limits on hunting, something the group could not support. "We're opposed to the ban because we think it's a foot in the door for anti-hunters," Morrow said.

Still, group members are fighting to open up areas now dominated by professional guides. He said guides have exclusive use of thousands of acres.

"People who do it for a profit have closed it off to a regular hunter," he said, adding that he believes land-use decisions are driven by greedy guides and a state government that isn't working on behalf of individual Maine hunters.

Regardless of how they plan to vote on the referendum, hunters say they're upset about problems getting access to the land, said Cecil Gray, a spokesman for Hunters for Fair Bear Hunting.

"Some guys don't care about baiting. But they are mad the guides have all the land tied up," he said.

Gray said even when he's out walking in the woods scouting for deer, he gets questioned by bear hunters who want to know what he's doing. If baiting is eliminated, the fierce competition for a chunk of the woods would go away too, Gray said.

"It puts everybody on an open playing field -- whether it's a guide or some person who's going to camp in a gravel pit," he said.

Web sites of many sporting camps highlight their exclusive right to use the land, including the Allagash Guide Service in Allagash, which conducts hunts on 180,000 acres; Abbott Brook Guide Service in Rangeley, which has more than 200,000 acres of what it describes as "exclusive hunting territory;" and Conklin's Lodge and Camps in Patten, which has use of more than 500,000 acres.

Lester Conklin, who runs Conklin's Lodge with his wife, Marie, said there's plenty of land available for those who don't want to hire a guide.

"Anybody who says there's no room for them is absolutely wrong," he said.

Conklin mentioned North Maine Woods and Irving Woodlands as two entities that set aside land for noncommercial hunters. And he said some private landowners, such as dairy farmers, don't want to deal with commercial outfitters and prefer to allow only individual hunters on their land.

He said the reason he and others negotiate exclusive rights is because they don't want to fight about who can hunt on certain land.

The state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has worked for years to balance the needs of wildlife with access to the woods for hunters, said Mark Latti, department spokesman.

Some game preserves that don't allow hunting date back to colonial times, while the state has wildlife management areas that allow a variety of activities, he said.

"Maine is blessed in that private landowners open lands to recreational uses like hunting," Latti said.

But despite 17 million acres of forested land in the state, some hunters say they can't get access to the good bear territory -- and Latti understands their frustration.

He said it's necessary to rope off some land during bear baiting season to ensure a good hunt.

Ferrell, 60, said he plans to go back to the woods to look for bear near a natural food source, and hopes to get his kill that way.

In his mind, that's the most pure form of hunting anyway.

"I may spend a couple of hundred hours, but someday I'll get a bear," he said. "I'm going to earn my bear. I'm not going to pay somebody."

Susan M. Cover -- 623-1056

scover@centralmaine.com

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