By ALANNA DURKIN | Associated Press
AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Five months after Maine voters rejected a proposal to ban the use of bait, dogs and traps to hunt bears, lawmakers are moving to block future efforts to change wildlife management laws at the ballot box.
Legislators on both sides of the aisle want to change the constitution to bar the public from amending laws that deal with hunting and fishing as animal rights activists consider launching another attempt to outlaw certain bear hunting practices in the state.
Sportsmen and lawmakers say wildlife management laws should be determined by scientists and protected from emotional campaigns bankrolled by out-of-state interest groups.
But opponents say the move would create a dangerous precedent by opening the door to other efforts to roll back the public's right to use the citizen initiative process.
“We should not be suppressing voters' rights in Maine because we don't want to see a single subject back on the ballot again,” said Katie Hansberry, Maine state director for the Humane Society of the United States, the Washington-based group that poured about $2 million into last year's proposal.
Hard feelings still linger from that campaign, which some Democrats have partially blamed for their poor performance at the polls because it energized many rural voters, who typically vote Republican.
The measure failed by a margin of roughly 40,000 votes, but Rep. Stephen Wood said he fears that the Human Society will eventually succeed in dismantling Maine's bear hunting practices.
“They can keep spending $3 (million) to $4 million every year … and sooner or later they are going to win and the sportsmen of Maine are the ones that are going to pay for it,” said the Republican from Greene who wants to amend the constitution to ensure hunting and fishing laws aren't subject to the citizen initiative process.
Wood's bill and a similar one from Democratic Rep. Michelle Dunphy, which would exclude all wildlife management laws, will be considered by a legislative committee on Monday. Two other measures another committee will hear this week seek to enshrine the right to hunt and fish in the state's constitution.
The measures will require the support of two-thirds of lawmakers and voter approval. Wood said he wants to get his proposal on the ballot this November to block another potential Humane Society bid.
Hansberry's group is considering trying to send another bear-hunting proposal to voters in 2016, but it would seek to ban only the use of dogs and traps, practices she says are less controversial.
A similar effort to exclude wildlife laws from the citizen initiative process was rejected by the Democratic-controlled Legislature in 2013. But supporters feel they have a better chance this year because the contentious November campaign remains fresh in lawmakers' minds.
“If I was a Democrat or a Republican in those rural districts, I would look at that vote and say to myself: `Maybe I should take a look at this because my constituents don't like what's going on,”' said David Trahan, executive director of the Maine Sportsman's Alliance, which is supporting the measures.
Hansberry said she hopes that lawmakers reject the bills like they have in the past and “don't respond to whatever bad feelings” may still exist from the 2014 campaign.
“I am hopeful that the Legislature will once again realize that this is bad policy,” she said.
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