With the referendum to ban bear baiting, trapping and hounding planned for the Nov. 4 ballot, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is trying to educate the public about the state’s current bear management program and bear hunting practices. In a news release Wednesday, the department said that the bear harvest will fall “well below objectives” without these three methods of bear hunting.

“As the agency responsible for managing Maine’s black bear population and all wildlife species, [we] will be working to educate the public about the science behind the bear management program, the history of bear management, and why these tools are necessary and effective,” said Judy Camuso, DIF&W wildlife division director. “They are scientifically proven methods. We will be doing this from now until the referendum.”

More than 10,800 hunters purchased a permit to hunt bear in Maine in 2013, and only 26 percent of those hunters were successful, harvesting 2,845 bears, according to the news release. The Maine bear harvest hasn’t met objectives since 2005. State biologists have estimated that Maine’s black bear population is more than 30,000, and to stabilize that population, an annual harvest of 4,500 bears is needed.

About 93 percent of the bears harvested were taken by hunters using bait, dogs or traps; while about 7 percent were taken by still-hunters (81 harvested by deer hunters, and 131 registered by tagging stations but did not record the method used to take a bear).

Still-hunting is defined as hunting with no other tool but a firearm or bow, often using knowledge about natural food sources. Proponents for the referendum to ban bear baiting, trapping and hounding refer to this method of hunting as “fair chase.”

“There are very few people in Maine who go out to still-hunt bear,” Camuso said. “That’s the only method that will be left if the referendum passes.”

But others say that eliminating baiting, trapping and hounding as methods of bear hunting will increase interest in still-hunting.

“Look at the states that did away with these practices and benefited in doing so,” said Katie Hansberry, campaign director for Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, the group leading the referendum campaign to ban bear baiting, hounding and trapping. “Studies show the bear population stabilized once they stopped feeding them. And there was more interest in fair-chase bear hunting.”

Hansberry says a research study conducted for Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting focusing on Washington state, which banned bear baiting and hounding in 1996, shows that the ban won’t mean a drastic reduction in bear hunting. According to the study, 18 years after hounds and bait were prohibited in Washington, the number of bears harvested increased by 16 percent, the number of hunters participating in bear hunts increased by 97 percent and the number of licenses sold increased by 343 percent for residents and 97 percent for nonresidents.

“I think the [DIF&W] press release continues to ignore the obvious,” said Hansberry. “Dumping millions of pounds of human junk food into the woods every year grows the bear population, it habituates bears to people and increases the likelihood of conflict.”

The Washington case study, along with other studies supporting Hansberry’s argument, can be viewed at fairbearhunt.com.

“Our number one goal is the health of the bear population,” Camuso said. “We want healthy bears, not bears dying of disease and starvation. We want them to successfully reproduce and live out their lives.”

Camuso says that the data her department is sharing show why baiting and other methods of bear hunting are necessary.

“A common question people ask about baiting is if it’s artificially inflating the population,” Camuso said. “We have 40 years worth of data that shows it doesn’t. Baiting is constant on the landscape, so if it affected the bear population, we’d expect yearling weight to be pretty flat, consistent from year to year.”

Since 1975, DIF&W wildlife biologists have visited the dens of radio-collared female black bears in Maine to research and monitor the bear population. This past winter, the bear research crew visited 88 dens, handling a total of 194 bears in three different study areas across the state. At the dens, they gather biological data from the bears that they find, including size, weight, number of cubs and number of yearlings (year-old bears) — data that give the department an in-depth view of Maine’s black bear population.

Data show that the weights of yearlings are tied directly to the natural food supply, fluctuating from year to year.

“We would also expect, if baiting were impacting our bear populations, the average size of black bears would be larger than they are,” Camuso said. “Maine’s bears are fairly small compared to other states. … There’s a lot of consistent data that proves to us that baiting doesn’t have a significant impact.”

Hansberry points out that current methods aren’t keeping bear populations in check that well, though.

“The bear population has increased 30 percent since 2004, and the bear nuisance complaints have increased from 400 to 500 since 2004,” Hansberry added. “That’s from DIF&W’s own data.”

Each year, state wildlife offices receive hundreds of complaints about black bears, which are notorious for raiding bird feeders, beehives, livestock pens, trash bins and other human-provided food sources, especially during the spring, when they’ve just emerged from their dens. Social tolerance of these wildlife interactions determines what biologists call social carrying capacity, Camuso said, which plays a huge role in bear management objectives.

“With black bears in particular, what the biological carrying capacity could be, no one really knows,” Camuso said. “We believe, because it’s a large predator, the public tolerance for that species kicks in before the biological carrying capacity sets in.”

The DIF&W plans to develop a website specific to the upcoming referendum to ban bear baiting, hounding and trapping, providing the public with information about the state’s black bear management program and current hunting laws. It’s all part of a more proactive approach to communication with the public, Camuso says.

“We want people to understand the bear management program and understand what the reality of the harvest is, how many bears we have in Maine and how many are harvested each year,” Camuso said. “All of this plays into how people vote in the fall.”

To learn more about the DIF&W black bear management program, visit www.maine.gov/ifw/wildlife/species/mammals/bear.html; and to learn about Maine’s bear hunting laws, visit www.maine.gov/ifw/hunting_trapping/hunting/bear.htm.

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...