Mitch Cummings likes to take a rifle into the Maine woods near his Bethel home, climb onto a platform secured to a tree and spend hours watching a plastic barrel stuffed with stale pastries.
He’s hunting black bears, using high-calorie snacks purchased in bulk and a spray that smells like jelly doughnuts to lure the animals into a narrow clearing. When he sees one he likes, he’ll shoot to kill.
“I just stay as still as possible,” said Cummings, 37, after showing off the fresh paw prints and bear droppings that surround a blue barrel licked clean by one that got away. “Bears are very smart.”
Eighty percent of the almost 3,000 bears killed each year during the state’s four-week hunting season in late summer are lured with bait, according to the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department.
Animal-rights groups want to stop it. The practice gives hunters an unfair advantage and encourages bears to acquire a taste for human food, according to the Humane Society of the U.S. The group is reviving a fight that had some success in western states two decades ago. It’s backing a ballot measure next year that would end baiting, trapping and using hounds to kill bears.
“Maine is an outlier on the bear-hunting methods, and we need a course correction,” said Wayne Pacelle, chief executive officer of the Washington-based Humane Society of the U.S., in a telephone interview. “The odds are very badly stacked against the bears.”
Of the 32 states with bear hunting, 12 allow baiting, according to Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, a Portland-based coalition. Eighteen permit hounding, where dogs with GPS monitors on their collars chase bears into trees. Maine is the only state in the continental U.S. that allows trapping, a practice where a bear’s paw is ensnared in a wire loop, according to the group.
The referendum effort puts the state at the forefront of a hunters-versus-bear debate that dates to 1920s-era battles over steel traps. It pits the state’s animal activists against wildlife officials who say Maine’s ursine population must be kept in check.
“Please make no mistake: This is not about hunting methods, but a referendum on how we manage and control wildlife in this state,” Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Chandler E. Woodcock said at a Sept. 23 news conference in Augusta.
His department estimates there are 30,000 bears in Maine, or one for every 44 residents. Maine has the second-largest bear population among 25 states in the eastern U.S., according the 2011 Bear Management Survey, a multistate project. Only Wisconsin, with as many as 40,000 black bears, has more, the data show.
A similar debate took place three years ago in New Jersey, which added a six-day hunting season with baiting allowed to cull the bear population after increasing numbers of them came into contact with humans.
Ten years ago, the Humane Society pushed a similar referendum in Maine. It was defeated 53 percent to 47 percent on the 2004 ballot, according to the secretary of state’s office. Last week, Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting started collecting signatures and have already reeled in a celebrity endorsement from pop singer and rapper Ke$ha, who promoted the effort during a glitter-strewn concert in Bangor last month.
“We have many years of experience in other states that have eliminated those methods and know what that has meant for their bear populations and nuisance complaints,” said Anita Coupe, a member of the coalition’s steering committee.
After Washington, Oregon and Colorado banned baiting and hounding in the 1990s, bear hunting increased, according to data from the states’ fish and wildlife agencies.
“The fair-chase hunters come back,” Coupe said.
Maine’s hunters counter that the Pine Tree State’s dense forests make tracking the animals on foot difficult.
“It is dark and black and very thick,” said David Trahan, executive director of the Augusta-based Sportman’s Alliance of Maine. “It is impossible to stalk a bear.”
Animal-rights groups have demographics on their side, said David Walls, a professor emeritus of sociology at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California, who has written about the movement in the U.S.
“There are fewer people hunting these days,” he said. “There are fewer people living in rural areas.”
In Maine, more than half of the 10,778 bear-hunting permits issued last year went to non-residents, according to Maine figures. Many of those were vacationers who pay as much as $2,500 per person for the chance to bring home a furry pelt, said Don Kleiner, executive director of the Maine Professional Guides Association.
“There is an economic story here,” he said, counting off the cooks, taxidermists, outfitters and camp cleaners paid during organized hunts. Those jobs -- mostly in the poorer rural parts of the state -- would evaporate should the referendum pass, he said.
Bethel is one town that benefits. At the Bait, Tackle & More shop, Sarah Lane and Jeremy Fredette sell guns, ammunition and bear T-shirts. They tag animals that are shot nearby and collect one tooth from each to be sent in to state officials for age tracking.
“This is part of our culture here, hunting and fishing,” said Lane. “Those people who don’t like bear hunting probably haven’t run into one.”
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