PORTLAND, Maine — A Superior Court justice has dismissed a lawsuit filed last year that attempted to stop the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife from spending taxpayer dollars to oppose the referendum that sought to ban bear baiting and other practices.
Superior Court Justice Joyce Wheeler on Tuesday granted a motion to dismiss filed by the Maine attorney general’s office on behalf of DIF&W. The judge found the issue was moot since the election was over.
Voters on Nov. 4 rejected a citizen-initiated referendum to ban bear baiting, hounding and trapping, by a vote of 54 percent to 46 percent.
Wheeler issued her ruling as the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee was scheduled to hold a hearing Monday on a bill that addresses the issues outlined in the lawsuit.
The judge said the plaintiffs, Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, which received funding from the Humane Society of the U.S., should have filed their lawsuit earlier than late September.
“It would be prudent to consider the issues raised by plaintiffs’ complaint in the context of an ongoing controversy and a live ballot question,” Wheeler wrote in her seven-page dismissal order.
Katie Hanseerry, who was campaign director for Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting and the other plaintiff in the lawsuit, said Friday that she was disappointed with the judge’s decision. She said a decision has not been made whether Wheeler’s decision would be appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
James Cote, campaign Manager of the No on 1 campaign and the Maine Wildlife Conservation Council, praised Wheeler’s decision.
“Today’s decision, and the previous strong decision by Justice Wheeler not to grant an injunction to HSUS, reaffirms our position and the position of the DIF&W that the department’s role in the Question 1 campaign and in future campaigns is not political activity, but in fact their statutory responsibility to manage our wildlife and make sure that Maine’s public understands the consequences of wildlife management decisions, “ Cote said in a news release issued Friday. “We stand by the department, and will continue to fight to protect their voice on critical wildlife conservation issues.”
The lawsuit sought to force DIF&W to immediately comply with previous Maine Freedom of Access Act requests as well as prohibit the department from any further campaigning against Question 1. It also asked that the court require the department to remove all political content from its website, repay any funds to the state that were used in campaign activities and remove the television ads from the air.
In the campaign against Question 1, DIF&W took an unprecedented advocacy role on the referendum question. Wardens, biologists and other agency staff spoke at dozens of voter forums around the state and in several TV spots to defeat the initiative.
A week or so before the election, Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, which supported the ban, issued a statement citing court documents that indicated DIF&W would spend no “additional funds or resources” to campaign on Question 1.
Five weeks after the election, it was determined that DIF&W spent at least $31,000 on campaign materials, television ads, debate coaching and staff time to fight Question 1, according to a previously published report. The spending was detailed in internal agency documents and invoices released to the Bangor Daily News under the Maine Freedom of Access Act.
BDN writer Aislinn Sarnacki contributed to this report.