WILTON, Maine (AP) — In Maine, a hunter can shoot a bear while it's nose-deep in a barrel of doughnuts, after it's been chased up a tree with dogs, or when it's snared in a cable trap — but that could change in days, and hunters and animal rights advocates around the country are watching.
Bears are hunted in 32 states but Maine has the most permissive rules. It is the only one that allows hunters to use three methods — bait, dogs and traps — decried by animal rights groups and targeted by a Nov. 4 ballot proposal that would ban them all.
National hunting groups oppose the ban because they believe it could set a precedent that prompts other states to try to roll back hunting rights. Some animal rights activists see it as a dress rehearsal for referendums in other states that allow hunting methods they perceive as cruel.
The referendum has prompted a spirited fight within the state, where proponents of the ban say the food habituates bears to humans, which can lead to dangerous encounters. They also decry the three methods as unsportsmanlike. But opponents say the methods are necessary to control Maine's growing bear population, which has risen to about 30,000, up about 30 percent from ten years ago.
Campaigns supporting and opposing the ban have both raised more than $1 million. The Ohio-based U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance has donated more than $100,000 to Save Maine's Bear Hunt, which seeks to defeat the referendum, said Evan Heusinkveld, a spokesman for the group.
"It's a direct threat to the future of hunting in Maine and across the country," Heusinkveld said. "We want to see the longtime professionals in the state be able to manage the bear population."
State wildlife biologists also oppose the ban and have campaigned against it. Maine wildlife division director Judy Camuso said passage of the ban would mean a larger bear population that would create more competition for resources, meaning more bears starve and range into residential settings in search of food.
"What I really don't want is people's primary interaction with a black bear to be that of a nuisance," Camuso said.
Using bait — typically sugary human food such as doughnuts — is by far the most common method of bear hunting, accounts for about four-fifths of the hunt, and is the most debated of the three methods.
Supporters of the proposal say the use of bait has actually abetted the state's growing bear population. Dumping thousands of pounds of human food into the woods — one oft-cited estimate says it's about 7 million pounds per year — has created a well-fed bear population that reproduces more frequently, said Katie Hansberry, campaign director for Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting. She said that's also why nuisance bear encounters have increased about 25 percent, to about 500 per year, since a decade ago.
"It's the absolute worst way to manage bears if you want to minimize conflicts with people," Hansberry said.
People have hunted bears in Maine for hundreds of years — an article on a Maine Historical Society website details Native Americans' reliance on bears for food more than 1,200 years ago. Today, Maine is the only state that allows all three hunting methods, and the only state that allows trapping, typically with foothold snares. Hunting without the three methods, which proponents of the ban call "fair chase," would remain legal if the referendum passes.
Twelve states allow bear baiting — with different degrees of restrictions — and of those, Maine, Alaska, Idaho, Utah, Michigan, Wisconsin and New Hampshire also allow hunting with dogs, or "hounding." Eleven other states allow hounding but not baiting. Massachusetts, Washington, Oregon and Colorado voters rolled back hunting methods via referendum in the 1990s.
Many hunters say the ban would devastate Maine outfitters and guides who rely on the fall bear hunt to bring in out-of-state tourism dollars.
"If this thing passes, you won't have to worry about them coming back," said Bob Parker, owner of Stony Brook Outfitters, motioning to a group of about 20 out-of-state hunters at his Wilton lodge. "I'll be out of business. There's just no way to keep the doors open."
The Virginia-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Connecticut-based Friends of Animals are also monitoring the results of the referendum, in the hopes that it will drum up anti-baiting sentiment in other states.
"Having these exceptionally cruel practices like baiting and trapping in the news helps to bring them to people across the country, who will want to see them banned," said campaign specialist Ashley Byrne.