The appalling practice of bear baiting, where bears are shot while their heads are buried in piles of human junk food, has come to a close for the year. But sadly, the equally cruel and unsporting practices of bear hounding and trapping carry on through October.
As a result, Maine’s bears will continue to be pursued to exhaustion by packs of up to six remotely tracked dogs only to be shot after having sought refuge in a tree. They will also be left to suffer in painful snares for hours while struggling frantically to break free, injuring themselves in the process before the trapper returns to shoot them at close range. If the mother is killed, her orphaned cubs have less of a chance for survival. Sadly, these nightmarish scenarios will be the miserable reality for hundreds of Maine’s bears.
Not only are these methods undoubtedly inhumane, they also violate sportsmen’s ethic of “fair chase” hunting because they give too much advantage to the hunter. Houndsmen commonly use GPS collars to electronically locate dogs over great distances. Compared to traditional hunting, hounding bears involves no sport. They follow a radio signal with a handheld computer so that they can simply show up at the tracked location and shoot a cornered, exhausted and frightened bear.
Hounding also endangers the dogs, as there are instances in which a bear will turn to confront the pack. This increases the possibility of killing cubs because the dogs can ferociously tear a young bear apart. The dogs also suffer because they can easily be wounded or even killed by an adult protecting her cubs. Additionally, hounds that fail to perform may be abandoned and end up at animal shelters where they are particularly difficult to rehome as many of them had been treated more like pieces of hunting equipment than beloved companions.
Maine has the shameful distinction of being the only state to allow bear trapping. Trappers are currently luring bears to areas baited with rotting garbage and a cable snare set to tether the bears to a tree. Unless they chew off their own paw, there is no escape. The traps are indiscriminate; if a cub is caught in a trap, the cub also becomes easy prey for other wildlife. This horrific practice involves no chase whatsoever. While avid hunter Ted Williams was referencing bear baiting in a BDN OpEd almost a year ago, his question to those defending that practice is no less applicable to trapping: “How can there be a thrill of the chase when there’s no chase?”
These practices are also scientifically indefensible, and they increase nuisance complaints, research indicates. Studies show that hunting does nothing to resolve human-bear conflicts because hunters target the animals in the woods, not ones causing problems near human habitation. The fact is one of the worst things that can be done to manage a bear population is to artificially increase the amount of available food and accustom them to human food and smells, which is exactly what happens when mounds of donuts, pizza, candy, popcorn and grease are dumped into the woods to attract bears for an easy trophy kill. Both bear hounding and trapping frequently involve the use of such bait as part of those unsavory methods.
Last year, nearly 250,000 Mainers voted to enact long overdue protections for Maine’s bears, but that effort was hindered by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s improper use of state resources and scare tactics. The BDN recognized that “trapping and hounding bears is cruel and of little biological value,” and opined that “it was shortsighted — and irresponsible of IF&W and sportsmen — not to ban these two practices, which a majority of Mainers find objectionable.”
It’s time for the Legislature and IF&W to step up, listen to the people they represent and help restore fairness to Maine’s bear hunt by putting an end to the cruel and unsporting practices of bear hounding and trapping.
Katie Hansberry is the Maine state director of The Humane Society of the United States