By PATRICK WHITTLE | Associated Press
PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — This could be the last year it's legal for hunters in Maine to bait bears with jelly doughnuts in the woods, and doughnut day has arrived.
Beginning Saturday, hunters can start luring bears by setting bait, typically, sugary high-calorie human food. But a November ballot question, if approved by voters, could prohibit hunting bears while using bait, dogs or traps. Hunting without the three methods, which supporters of the ban call “fair chase,” would remain legal.
Supporters of the ban say bear baiting is cruel and habituates bears to humans. Opponents contend that a ban would wield a devastating blow to the state's tourism-dependent economy.
State Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife officials oppose the ban, saying bear hunting, and bear baiting, is necessary to manage the state's bear population. Daryl DeJoy, executive director of the Wildlife Alliance of Maine, says bear baiting has actually increased the state's bear population, which is about 30,000, a 30 percent increase from a decade ago.
“We're putting all these millions of pounds of junk food in the woods, sending these bears to sleep with a lot of high-calorie food, increasing their reproductive capabilities,” DeJoy said.
The state's bear hunting season begins Aug. 25 and ends Nov. 29. Maine is the only state that allows all three of the hunting methods that the ban would eliminate. Baiting, which accounts for 80 percent of the state's bear hunt, must take place at least a quarter-mile from any dwellings.
Chad Deabay of Oxbow, owner of Oxbow Lodge and a bear hunt outfitter, says this year's bear season is attracting keen interest from hunters who are aware of the upcoming referendum. Meanwhile, hunting outfitters, he said, are in “panic mode” over the possibility of losing the use of bait, and the fear is shared by hotel owners, taxidermists and local restaurants, who all benefit from the influx of tourists. More than 1,700 of the 2,845 bears harvested in Maine in 2013 were caught by out-of-state residents.
“Some folks are coming this year because they're scared that they might not get to do it again,” Deabay said.
The vote is coming in a year that has seen an increased amount of nuisance bear complaints from residents. An average year yields about 500 complaints of bears destroying property, stealing food or wandering close to a residential area, but this year's number is already 538, state officials said.
Whether the bears take the bait depends on the presence of natural food sources, said Jennifer Vashon, a state bear biologist. The availability of natural food appears moderate this year, she said. Bears tend to go after bait more aggressively when their natural food is scarce.
The vote will come 10 years after Maine voters narrowly rejected a similar measure.