Maine is a wonderful place to live or to visit, as many residents and tourists will agree. It is famous for lighthouses, lobsters, boat races and yard sales, among other attractions, but there’s another aspect that almost always goes unnoticed because it occurs away from most populated areas and because it’s something that we’d rather our from-away visitors not know. It’s how we treat our bears.
The 2017 season opened on August 28. For four weeks bears can be shot over bait, but the state allows luring them a month earlier with rotting meat, discarded cooking grease, stale jelly donuts and other human junk food so the bears become accustomed to eating at a particular site and can be killed there by hunters hiding in ambush. Those who favor bear-baiting label it a tradition, but in fact it began in earnest only fairly recently and is driven by out-of-state trophy hunters who pay hefty fees for licenses and to guides for what amounts to an almost guaranteed kill, depending upon the wariness and caution of the bear.
One result is that bears become conditioned to human food, creating a tendency to draw them closer to towns and villages to obtain it. Another result is that the concept of fair chase that is bedrock to the real tradition of hunting is replaced by the mentality of a shooting gallery. Rigging the outcome — something that would not be tolerated in any other sport — also means that skill and experience are no longer necessary, thereby reducing the challenge and minimizing the result.
The bear trapping season begins, running for eight weeks to October 31. A captured bear is held fast in a trap, fearful, struggling to escape, and often hurt, until the trapper executes it. From mid-September to the end of October, hunters can pursue bears with packs of up to six hounds often equipped with radio-controlled collars. After a bear is held at bay or driven up a tree, it is killed on the spot. Maine, therefore, has the dubious distinction of being the only state in the country that sanctions all three of the practices just described.
It is difficult to see how luring animals to the same spot and then ambushing them, or pursuing them with dogs and then shooting them out of trees, or firing point blank at a bear caught in a trap is part of the proud Maine tradition of fair play, which is one reason why two referendums to outlaw such practices have come before voters in the last decade, the last of which was defeated by the slim margin of a little over three percent. Some fear that the passage of such a measure will mean the end of hunting, but one restriction does not necessarily lead to another, any more than licensing drivers has led to the outlawing of automobiles.
As the state’s citizens decide how they feel about the issues of baiting, hounding and trapping bears, they need to weigh carefully the opinions of those who seek economic advantage, as well as the views of experts whose objectivity has been compromised or have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. And because emotions are a poor substitute for thoughtful consideration, they should also beware of fear-based arguments such as bears invading backyards if a future referendum is passed.
Whatever is determined, the decisions we make say a great deal about who we are and what we regard as important. The people of Maine, hunters and non-hunters alike, are widely known for their sense of decency and fairness. Their well-deserved reputation should not be tarnished by cruel and inhumane practices that undermine the very best of our values. The nineteenth-century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said that a society is measured by the kind of person it produces. One could add that we are judged as well by our treatment of the less fortunate among us, including the animals we control.
Don Loprieno is a published author who has maintained a life-long interest in education and history. He lives in Bristol, Maine where he is active in community affairs. Don is a frequent contributor to a radio program called Into the Wilderness broadcast Tuesday evenings from 8-8:30 on WMPG FM 90.9.