For those of you who aren’t following the battle to ban bear baiting in Maine, here’s a quick recap: Animal rights groups are pushing a ballot measure that will ask voters this November to ban bear hunting over bait, the use of dogs in bear hunting, and bear trapping. They claim these methods are cruel, unsportsmanlike, and unnecessary for population control. Opponents, including sportsman’s groups, guiding services, and state biologists, disagree.
I found myself discussing the issue with a friend the other day, who does not hunt and does not live in a rural place. “It’s a moralistic argument,” I was telling him of the proponent’s logic. “They think it’s immoral to shoot bears over a pile of jelly donuts.”
He put his pint glass back on the bar and furrowed his brow in consideration. Then said: “I had no idea that people liked jelly donuts enough that they’d be willing to fight bears over them.”
Jokes aside, this is a big deal to a lot of Mainers and to sportsmen and women and wildlife managers everywhere who are worried about the precedent such a ban could set. It’s important to note that the ban does not stem from a perceived threat to the overall population of black bears in Maine; the bear population has grown by 30 percent over the past ten years and is currently estimated at around 30,000. (Hunters kill around 3,000 in any given year.) Rather, the ban is being pushed by people who don’t think it’s ethical to hunt bears over bait or with dogs or traps. The wildlife management status quo is that state biologists create hunting and trapping seasons with population objectives in mind; they calculate how many bears the landscape can support, how many bears people are willing to tolerate (Maine averages 500 nuisance complaints a year), and the desires of people who want more bears (including both animal lovers and hunters); they then set rules and guidelines and hunters help carry out their management objectives. This whole idea of citizens dictating management particulars via the ballot box is something else entirely.
I don’t live in Maine, and so can’t vote on the matter myself, but I can speak to it as a hunter who cares about the animals I pursue. I can tell you first-hand that the vast majority of hunters I know already adhere to a near universal set of ethical considerations. We aspire to make clean shots and limit animal suffering. We don’t kill flippantly – we eat the animals we harvest. If you’ve lived in a rural place long enough you’ve come across a jacked deer that was killed in a wasteful manner, but this was the work of a poacher, not a hunter. I’ve yet to meet a hunter who didn’t go about this business of killing with at least some measure of depth and respect – it’s an ethos that’s passed down from generation to generation and reinforced in hunter safety classes.
But when we get into particular methods of hunting, as this ballot question does, things get a lot grayer. I know hunters who only use a bow – they see it as a way of leveling the playing field and giving the animals more of a sporting chance. I also know hunters who won’t touch a bow because a shot with a high-powered rifle will almost always result in a quicker, cleaner kill. I know hunters who won’t shoot does or sows because it’s “wrong” to shoot mothers, and other hunters who, in areas where herd reduction is the goal, won’t shoot males. I’ve heard hunters argue that running bears with dogs is anachronistic and others who argue that hunting with dogs keeps bears afraid of people and dogs year round, thus limiting those summertime human/bear conflicts that often end with dead (and wasted) bears.
The point is that reasonable people often have contorted opinions about the ethics of different methods of hunting, and the way hunters deal with this ambiguity is to form their own personal ethical codes. A young man from the country heads to a high mountain peak and tracks a bear like an Indian; an older man from the city hires a guide and travels to Maine for a baited hunt; a farmer sets a trap and harvests a bear for the freezer that’s been fattened on corn he planted. And as long as these are all legal hunts that fall under the umbrella of a state-regulated management system, everything shines on in the big picture. There’s something very organic about how individual liberty and personal ethics and state management play together so well here.
This proposed ban, however, doesn’t feel organic to me. I think that proponents make a legitimate point that jelly donuts are an unnatural part of any ecosystem. And if there are places where bait piles are acclimating bears to humans and leading to more human/bear conflict, I think it’s reasonable for a community to regulate them. But this blanket ballot question contains no such nuance. If passed, this would be an outright ban on three very different forms of hunting.
It’s also worth noting that the driver here is the Humane Society of the United States, a national animal rights group, and they’re using gobs of out-of-state money to try to make their own moral code into Maine law. If the idea of an outside special interest group fighting to ban “objectionable” books, or art, or speech, or love leaves a bad taste in your mouth, this ballot measure should do the same.
But these opinions are my own. I suspect our readers will have strong feelings on this matter, both pro and con. Since the matter will be decided before the winter issue goes to press, we’ll post this editorial to our website and you can submit your comments there.