Bear-hunting measure creates a steel-trap divide in Maine

The referendum would limit trapping and 'baiting,' fostering a rift between north and south, urban and rural.

It has been described as a battle between North and South, between urban and rural, between Old Maine and New Maine.

At issue? A bear referendum, which would outlaw hunting of Maine's black bears with the help of stale jelly doughnuts and other "bait," leg-hold traps, or hound dogs. The campaign - which has played upon fear and repugnance, and questioned traditions, ethics, and what it means to be a true sportsman - will appear as a question Tuesday on the ballot in this battleground state.

Supporters say that luring bears with bait while hunters wait in place, trapping them, or employing dogs to chase the animals up trees is cruel and against a "fair chase" standard. Opponents, including the governor, claim the bear population will flourish if the initiative passes and that significant money is at stake.

Support breaks down geographically, with the forested north pitted against the more populated south. "It cuts very strongly north to south," says Christian Potholm, a pollster and professor of government at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me. Yet despite common stereotypes that hunters tend to be gun-toting Republicans and animal rights groups Democrats, the question does not break down by party affiliation. "It is quite nonpartisan," Mr. Potholm says.

The conflict between bear and human has surfaced in other states. The legality of bear baiting in Alaska is being questioned in this election, too. Bear hunting is currently allowed in 28 states. Eleven allow baiting, while 17 permit hunting with hounds. Maine has the largest bear population east of the Mississippi River, with 23,000. Some 4,000 are killed by hunters each year, the far majority with bait. It is the only state to allow trapping.

On a crisp fall day, Bill Randall places a tree limb in a trap, whose teethed jaws quickly snarl it. Whack. It slams shut. Mr. Randall, a former hunter who used to trap bears, is a lead proponent of doing away with bear trapping, baiting, and hounding. It was a gradual change of heart. "It is a learning curve, an appreciation of wildlife that comes with aging and education," he says.

Like other referendum supporters, Randall has drawn the ire of the hunting community. "It would be so hard to hunt bears without the use of bait that the number of kills would drop," says Tim Barry, a hunting guide in Kingfield, Me. And that would surely cause a spike in nuisance calls, now about 300 a year, he says, and could mean bears in backyards and near schools.

Whether bear management will spiral out of control and how much money is at stake if the referendum passes is contentious. Opponents estimate $62 million would be lost in food, hotel, licensing, and other expenses related to hunting. Supporters claim the number is much smaller. They also say bears can self-regulate, and that a ban would not necessarily diminish the number of out-of-state hunters - who make up about half of the state's bear hunters.

Beyond geography, the ballot initiative has turned into a class struggle, too - as the south has been painted as a place where "cruel yuppies" don't understand or care about the livelihood of the rural north, says Potholm.

Indeed, many suburbanites don't understand a Maine tradition, says Barry. Dogs have been chasing bears in Maine's woods since the colonial era. Besides, he says, it's tough work, despite the assertion that baiting, hounding, and trapping are short cuts for fast cash.

Randall disagrees. And he says opponents are playing on state pride to attract followers, warning residents not to let New Maine tell real Mainers what to do. He says it is an unnecessary tactic, that the referendum targets methods of hunting, not hunting itself. "You could never end hunting in Maine," says Randall, "not in a million years."

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