May 27, 2014 / 7:11 PM / 5 years ago

Maine voters weigh end to bear hunt tradition

BOWDOINHAM Maine (Reuters) - Elizabeth Mitchell, a 67-year-old great-grandmother and part-time librarian, started sleeping with a .38-caliber handgun on her nightstand this spring after a 200-pound (90-kg) black bear paid a visit to her rural Maine home.

While the animal did not harm her, other than ripping a gash in a trash can, the encounter left Mitchell wary and a firm opponent of a measure state residents will vote on in November on whether to outlaw bear trapping and hunting with bait or hounds.

“These bears are getting awfully bold,” said Mitchell, of Princeton, Maine, near the Canadian border. “I just hope no one gets hurt.”

Mitchell is not alone in opposing the measure, spearheaded by the Humane Society of the United States.

The state’s Republican governor, Paul LePage, and his Democratic and independent challengers also support the status quo.

While black bears rarely attack humans, Maine residents have seen an increase in bears scavenging trash cans, bird feeders and chicken coops, a phenomenon state scientists attribute to an unusually long winter followed by a cold spring. The incidents are inflaming tempers ahead of the November vote.

“This is a proxy war for national special interests,” said Christian Potholm, a Bowdoin College professor and political strategist who helped defeat a similar referendum in 2004. “One side doesn’t like certain hunting practices. The other sees them as a hunting tradition, and the only way to keep bear numbers safely in check.”

Maine has the largest bear population in the eastern United States, and attracts 10,000 mostly out-of-state hunters annually.

Proponents of the ban contend that bear baiting, in which hunters lure bears to a stand with stale donuts and other sweets, encourages bears to see humans as a source of food.

“We’re rewarding bears for losing their wariness,” said Katie Hansberry, state director for the Humane Society.

State wildlife biologists disagree, noting that many baited bears wind up dead. The bear population in the state has risen as the number of hunters has declined, with sales of licenses falling by about a third over the past decade.

“With fewer hunters, we’ll need all these methods to stabilize populations at levels healthy for bears and tolerable for humans,” said state bear biologist Jennifer Vashon.

Ten U.S. states currently allow bear baiting, according to Humane Society data. Hunters bagged some 3,200 bears in the state in 2012, according to state data.

Editing by Scott Malone and G Crosse

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