What Would Teddy Do?

Last week Maine citizens voted on Question 2—whether or not to outlaw the “baiting, hounding, and trapping” of bears. So why didn’t such an apparently humane measure pass?

In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt went on a hunting trip to Mississippi. After a frustrating and unsuccessful hunt, locals captured a black bear and tied it to a tree so the president could shoot it. Roosevelt refused. The story hit the papers and within days an enterprising shopkeeper in Brooklyn began displaying toy bears in his window—”Teddy” bears. America’s relationship with Ursus americanus would never be the same.

On Nov. 2, Maine voters faced ballot Question 2, which proposed a ban on hunting by entrapment, which many consider unsportsmanlike. At stake was not only the obvious moral issue, but also several million dollars.

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When I was a kid there used to be a big sign just after you crossed over the Piscataqua River: “Welcome to Maine, Vacationland.” It still says “Vacationland” on my license plates, but that sign has been replaced with a more recent slogan: “Maine, the Way Life Should Be.” While a lot of Mainers bristle at the idea that their state is just a playground for affluent Bostonians and tourists from points south and west, the fact remains that without vacationers’ dollars Maine would be flat on its back, instead of just on its knees. Tourists come to Maine to climb the mountains, see the coast, eat lobster, buy antiques, and, yes, kill things. Thus, the bear-baiting issue has put the hard facts of Maine economics front and center once again.

Bear baiting? The term evokes Elizabethan woodcuts of peasants dancing around a chained bear in a ritual slaughter; more than a form of hunting, it sounds like sadistic entertainment. And for its opponents, such as the Maine Citizens for Fair Bair Hunting, who sponsored Question 2, that’s exactly what it is. The ban, which would outlaw the “baiting, hounding, and trapping” of bears, lumped together three quite different practices: luring bears with food, running them down with dogs, and ensnaring them in leg traps. Indeed, Question 2’s comprehensiveness played a factor in its defeat last week.

So how could what seems like such a humane measure lose out with voters? The bear-baiting debate is set against the stark backdrop of a state that can’t afford to lose another job. Part of “the way life should be” must include paying high taxes, for Maine is no. 2 in the nation (behind New York) in that respect. In the last four years, Maine has lost 17,000 industrial jobs, and because the state continues to depend on ailing and perhaps doomed industries such as fishing and logging, it must protect all of its other industries—like tourism. In a more populous state, the potential loss of jobs from ending bear baiting would be in the noise level. Here, it has rekindled the always-smoldering animosity between the booming southern part of the state and the economically depressed north. While the foes of baiting felt they were defending a principle, the bear hunters and the state government believed they were holding onto not only jobs, but also a way of life.

Maine is home to 23,000 bears and slightly over 1.25 million people. Guides, lodge owners, outfitters, and the state’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (DIFW) stood to lose millions in revenue if the bear-baiting question passed. Many facts are in dispute, but here’s one you can take to the bank: In 2002, the state sold almost 8,000 non-resident bear permits at $65 apiece—about half a million dollars’ worth. Out-of-staters often go on guided bear hunts, which each cost about $1,100. Estimates of the current impact of bear hunting on the Maine economy? Around $7 million.

But both sides of the debate were disingenuous in their use of statistics. DIFW says it has to “harvest” about 3,500 bears per year to keep the bear population at current levels, and that it can’t do that without these “management tools.” The director of DIFW’s Bureau of Resource Management, Ken Elowe, said that the bear population would grow 50 percent in five years if baiting were banned, and there would be a “profound effect.” The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council (a pro-baiting political action committee) was less restrained: “Bears will be in your backyard, if you vote for this initiative. Bears will threaten your family—your kids—your grandchildren.” Bears started to sound like the biggest threat to our posterity since the federal deficit.

The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, another anti-ban group, later admitted in an interview aired on Maine Public Radio Nov. 4 that its members had engaged in “scare tactics” to defeat Question 2. In fact, both sides relied heavily on emotional ploys. One of the pro-ban ads depicted a bear caught in a trap, as a man with a large-caliber revolver approached the animal with a menacing, “do you feel lucky punk?” demeanor. Understandably, pro-baiters shied away from addressing trapping, the nastiest of the three hunting methods addressed in Question 2.

Still, trapping comprises only three percent of bear kills. And “traps” includes the “Aldrich foot snare,” a device that does not harm the bear—in fact, it’s the kind used when bears are tagged and released. So, the old-fashioned steel-toothed bear traps are ultimately a small percentage of what the ban proposed outlawing. But for many, point-blank shooting a bear caught in a “humane” snare is still unsporting. What this argument really shows is that the ballot question was badly designed. Maine is, after all, the only state that still allows trapping of bears for sport. A simple ban on trapping would have passed easily because the economic impact is slight and the practice itself is widely abhorred. Indeed, the day after Question 2 lost by a firm but hardly resounding six-point margin, the Maine Citizens for Fair Bear Hunting were already discussing a future referendum that would be aimed simply at trapping.

Baiting, however, is a more contentious issue. Opponents of Question 2 defend the act of baiting and liken it to “sitting in a wetland filled with rice waiting for ducks” or “watching an apple tree waiting for a deer.” At least one Maine hunting lodge boasts of the massive quantities of bait it uses, as well as its baiting methods—as a lure to draw prospective hunters. Literally tons of bait are put out for the bears for up to 30 days before the season opens to get them used to coming to the bait spot.

“Bait” doesn’t mean blueberries and nuts. What keeps the bears coming back until doomsday? DIFW itself says, “The most prominent type of bait used in Maine is pastries, which are used in combination with the following: meat scraps, molasses, beaver carcasses, used fryolator grease, table scraps, fish, honey, grains, fruits, candy, French fries, and breads.” It sounds like a typical mall rat diet (except for the beaver carcasses). So when supporters of Question 2 say “bears shouldn’t be shot over a pile of jelly donuts,” they are certainly right about the doughnuts part.

Anti-baiting advocates say that—just as the Park Service has been telling us for years—you shouldn’t feed bears because it accustoms them to human foods and human contact, thus making bears more dangerous and human-bear encounters more likely. Outfitters and guides answer that they make every effort to keep human scent off the bait so the animals don’t associate it with humans—though, oops, one baiting outfit advertised that “we are conditioning them to the sound of our trucks, human scent, the noise we make while placing the bait.”

And so the charges fly back and forth. The Humane Society directed our attention to Colorado, which banned these hunting methods in 1992 and saw an increase in sales of licenses and revenue with no blooming of the bear population. DIFW countered that Colorado has a lot of open country where traditional hunting is effective, while in the dense forests and thick undergrowth of the Maine woods it is not. Ken Elowe predicted that the annual bear kill would drop from several thousand to just 360, and 90 percent of out-of-state hunters would stop coming. Those figures, however, were based on a survey conducted by private anti-ban groups.

One impression that emerged from the debate is that, regardless of your particular methods, bear hunting, as a sport, really isn’t much fun. Shooting an animal caught in a snare or treed by dogs is too much like an execution, and taking out a bear on its doughnut run sounds like waiting at the 7-Eleven to shoot your neighbor, who always goes down at 11:15 to pick up some cigs and coffee. But if you were to just go out in the woods and try to stalk a bear, or sit in an un-baited stand and wait for one to come along—keeping in mind that such unaided bear hunting has a six percent success rate—chances are you aren’t going to shoot anything. Now who would find any kind of fun in that?

Guys like Teddy Roosevelt, I guess.

Bruce F. Murphy is a freelance writer living in Rome. He is the editor of Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia (1996; 2008) and the author of several books. His poems, essays, and stories have appeared in Poetry, Commonweal, the Paris Review, Critical Inquiry, and elsewhere. More by Bruce Murphy