Some Un-bear-able Realities

One of the perpetual realities of the American political system is that legislation regulating guns and hunting is drafted by people who know nothing about either. Thus, when New York State passed its SAFE act, which specified that magazines with greater than 7-round capacity were now verboten, its legislators were unaware that 7-round magazines are almost nonexistent, and that since the law carried no exemption for police, just about every cop in the state was now a felon.

Thus it was in Maine, where Question One on the ballot, the so-called 2014 Bear Referendum, compounded of equal parts ignorance and stupidity, was defeated, although not by so great a margin as I would have liked to see. Maine is the only state to allow the use of hounds, baiting, and leg-hold traps in addition to stalking on foot. It also has a thriving population of more than 30,000 bears statewide, the largest in the eastern U.S., and one of the largest in the nation. This number has increased by 67 percent since 1990.

However, the bear harvest has declined by 23 percent since 2005. And, since bears insist on fornicating unless their numbers reach disastrously high levels, it means that unless Mainers harvest them at more or less the present level, it will eventually become like New Jersey, with one bruin per garbage can.

Where the sponsors of Question One went wrong was, they got greedy. If they had asked to get rid of leghold traps, they probably could have won. Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting ran ads showing bears thrashing in leghold traps and it was not pleasant to watch. If they had pointed out that trapping accounts for only 3 percent of the black bear harvest, the vote would have probably gone for their side. Same with hounds, which take 11 percent.

But the authors of Question One decided to include hunting over bait, which is by far the most popular and efficient (79 percent) means of harvesting a black bear. Baiting may not be the aesthetic equal of creeping through the woods like Leatherstocking, but it works, and for the hunter who has to take what little time he has off to collect a bear, it’s the only practical option.

So, if you eliminate baiting you’ll also eliminate a large number of bear hunters. Next will come the inevitable population explosion, and after that, bruins will begin showing up in places where they had not been before, and game wardens will have to shoot them. People picked up on this, and it’s one of the reasons Question One was defeated.

Another reason was the Alice in Wonderland quality of much of the anti-baiting propaganda that blossomed. Permit me to quote from the Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting Website:

“Baiting involves luring a bear to a noxious pile of rotting meat, pizza, pastries, and other junk food and then shooting the bear at point blank range while her head is buried in the piles of bait.”

First, why is it always “her,” and not “his”? Is it only sows who come to the bait piles? You can read every word in this website and I doubt you’ll see a single reference to boars. More important, I’ve watched bears feeding on bait piles, and they feed as all wild creatures do, grabbing a mouthful and chewing as they look around them. What they are looking for is bigger bears who, they know, can come up and grab them if they bury their heads in the garbage.

And: “There is no tradition in baiting—by feeding millions of pounds of fatty junk food to bears, we are creating larger bear populations and habituating the bears to human foods and smells, creating nuisance bears.”

Let’s see: Lobster traps and fishhooks are baited. Subsistence hunters all over the world bait if it works. Using doe scent is a form of baiting, except you’re using sex instead of food. As for fatty junk food, fat is the best thing in the world for bears; it’s what gets them through winter. As for habituating black bears to human smells and food, they are born with an uncanny ability to live in close proximity to humans. They don’t need coaching.

The people who could use it are the ones who wrote this stuff. I keep thinking of Macauly’s quote: “The puritan hated bear baiting [not the same thing as hunting over bait, by the way] not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.”

We’ll undoubtedly see Question One again in some other form in a future election. Let’s hope the people behind it are no better informed or skillful that the ones who drafted this loser.