KOKADJO, MAINE — It’s 9:30 at night, deep in the woods of northern Maine, and about a dozen people are waiting with excitement as Wayne Plummer backs a white pickup truck to the game pole at his hunting lodge on First Roach Pond.
It’s the first night of Maine’s bear hunting season, and in the back of the truck is a black bear, the first kill of the season for the hunters who pay Plummer $2,000 a week to guide them to a clear shot.
This year, the demand for spots on Plummer’s bear hunts has been extraordinary. That’s because many fear it will be “the last bear hunt,” or at least the last one where they’ll be able to hunt bears the way they’ve always hunted bears in Maine.
“Man, he’s a beauty,” Plummer’s wife, Barbara, says as he slides the bear out of the back of the pickup truck, forces two metal hooks into the flesh behind its ankles, then hoists it up on the pole so that its full scale and raw majesty unfurl. “Check out the claws on those fore legs.”
Hours before, the 240-pound bear was gorging itself on old doughnuts and pastries that had been strategically placed by Plummer in a barrel in a remote area of the woods when it was shot through the heart and lungs by a bow hunter hidden in a tree stand above.
This method of hunting — baiting — is either the problem with bear hunting in Maine or the solution for bear management in Maine, depending on whom you ask. This November, the state of Maine will ask its voters.
At stake in the ballot question are the three main methods hunters have long used to hunt bears in Maine: dogs, traps, and bait. One of the many great qualities about bears is that they’re not easy to kill, and luring them with bait — what’s known colloquially as “the jelly doughnut law” — is by far the most successful method.
Proponents of the ballot question, particularly the Humane Society of the United States, which has thrown its marketing and money into the campaign, say the referendum is simply a way to introduce “fair chase” to the hunting of bears, making the entire exercise less cruel and more sporting.
Opponents, among them all the large Maine hunting organizations as well as the state biologists charged with protecting the health of the bear population, say it will cripple their ability to harvest bear meat and manage the population — as it is, hunters fall well short of the number the state would like them to kill — leading to a population explosion that will result in decimation from disease and starvation. Isn’t that, they ask, more cruel?
Ten years ago, Maine voters were essentially asked this same ballot question. And, broadly speaking, it came down to a division of the two Maines. Southern Maine, where the human population is concentrated, mostly voted in favor of the ban. The rest of Maine, where the bear population, and bear hunting, is concentrated, mostly voted against it. It was defeated with 53 percent of the vote.
This time around, the hunters are worried the vote could go the other way. So is Randy Cross.
Cross is one of the two bear biologists for the state’s Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife. He handled the field work for decades and says that no person on earth has handled more bears than he. “It’s not even close,” he said.
Cross has devoted his adult life to the Maine black bear. He says no one worries more about them than he, and no one loves them more then he. Nothing, he says, has scared him like this ballot initiative.
“We would no longer be able to control population growth if we lost these very effective tools,” he said.
There is, Cross says, a romantic idea of letting nature take its course. “A lot of people think that’s the best. But I’m the one who actually goes out and puts my hands on bears. I’m the one who has to see it when a bear dies quietly in the woods from starvation. It’s not a pretty thing to see a cub that hasn’t made it 300 yards from its den.”
Right now, he said, bears are thriving. “It’s happy days for bears in Maine.” If voters take away the ability to hunt effectively, he said, it’s going to turn that situation into one of desperation within 10 years. Starving bears will wind up foraging in residential areas. “It would not only be an ecological catastrophe for bears living in the woods, it would also be a tremendous problem for people . . . There would be more conflicts between bears and people, and that becomes a safety risk at some point.”
There are an estimated 30,000 black bears in Maine, and the population has been growing steadily. Cross would like hunters to take about 3,500 to 4,500 bears each year. Currently, they take about 3,000 using every trick available. If the ballot question passes, hunters would essentially be left with two options — sitting quietly in a tree stand and hoping a bear comes by, or walking through the woods and hoping they happen upon one. In that event, the state estimates, the number killed by hunters would drop below 500.
“We’ll turn the kings of the forest into beggars on the street,” Cross says, quoting a line he heard from a hunter.
The fate of Maine’s bear hunt is an intellectual argument, but it’s also an emotional argument. Each side has its studies and experts. Each side has its argument about what will be best for the bears. But proponents of the ban have something else, which is the jolting image of a bear cowering in a tree, chased to exhaustion by a pack of beagles; the horrible thought of a bear caught in a foot snare, waiting to be executed; the “fish in a barrel” idea of a bear shot while eating a doughnut, killed by a hunter who has done little more than sit quietly and hope the wind does not give him away.
“This is not about stopping bear hunting. We respect the tradition of hunting,” said Katie Hansberry, the Maine state director for the Humane Society of the United States who is serving as the campaign director for Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, the coalition that gathered more than 78,000 signatures to get the question on the ballot.
“This is about restoring fair chase to Maine’s bear hunt,” she said. “Baiting is not a solution. It is a main source of the problem.” She argues that baiting impacts reproduction, habituates bears to human smells, increasing the potential for nuisance problems. By luring wild animals of different species to the same small area, it also encourages the spread of disease.
The campaign likes to point to other states that successfully hunt bears without bait or dogs or traps. Maine, they say repeatedly, is the only one that still allows trapping, using a foot snare or a cage trap. Of the 32 states with sizable bear populations, more than two-thirds allow hunting with dogs or bait or both, Cross said. Massachusetts, which has an estimated 4,000 black bears, does not allow baiting or dogs.
Proponents argue that by looking to the states with large bear populations that have outlawed those practices — Oregon and Washington come up again and again — you can see the path to successful population management without “cruel and unsporting” hunting.
Cross and many others rebut these points — much of this argument comes down to how you parse the data, and each side accuses the other of cherry-picking — and say you simply cannot compare trying to hunt a cunning animal in the thick Maine woods with any other state.
In the end, much of the debate comes down to a very human question of how we define “cruel.” Killing an animal for food or sport or fur or hide is something many people find uncomfortable . How much does it really matter how the animal is killed if the ultimate goal is its death?
In recent years, Americans have increasingly been answering it does matter, willing to pay more for meat that has been raised and slaughtered in a way that is considered “humane” or “cruelty-free.”
When asked if even “fair chase” hunting is cruel, Hansberry, the campaign director, danced around the answer and returned repeatedly to her talking points. After being pressed, she finally said no. “What is cruel is the use of these cruel and unsporting practices of hunting.”
It is a question that Barbara Plummer, the guide’s wife, has also struggled with. “I would have sworn to you up until the age of 40 that I could never kill an animal,” she said. Seven years ago, she forced herself to do it. “I came to believe that the organic bear meat I harvest in the woods had a lot more of a life, a lot more of a fair chase, than the meat you get from a slaughterhouse. And hunting over bait is actually the gentlest of all, because it’s over before they know anything.”
For the Plummers and many like them, this is also a question of economics. The state estimates the bear hunt pumps $60 million into the economy. The full bear hunting season runs from Aug. 25 to Nov. 29, but the state only allows hunting over bait during the first four weeks (hunters can start putting out the bait 30 days before that to habituate the bears). During those four weeks of bait hunting, by far the most popular, the Plummers make 40 percent of their income.
The rest of the time, their Northern Pride Lodge serves fishermen and hunters chasing other game, as well as snowmobilers. If the bear hunt disappears, which they say it will if the ballot question passes, their lodge, and many like it, may not survive, which will have a trickle-down impact on other business and activity. Most of the out-of-state customers, they say, will simply go to Canada, where the majority of the provinces allow hunting with bait, dogs, and traps.
And beneath it all is the question of the two Maines: those who live in the woods, and the outsiders, the “flatlanders,” who are always telling them how to manage those woods.
The morning after the first day of bear hunting season, Wayne Plummer loaded a dozen buckets filled with old pastries into the back of his pickup truck and set off down the maze of logging roads near Spencer Mountain to replenish the bait spots.
It had been a good night of hunting, he said. His 10 hunters got two bears, and they were already off to the butcher. One of them, shot by a man in Alabama who has a blind niece, will be mounted at a taxidermist and sent to a school for the blind so that the students can feel a bear.
As he walks to the spot where that bear took its last breath, down a path through thick brush into a clearing near a tiny creek, the woods are whisper-quiet, the air still, the tree stand empty. He pours two buckets of sugary sweets into the blue barrel, and continues a conversation he has been having a lot lately. A conversation, he says, that is about respect for the woods, for the food chain, for this animal that will give its life so that he can have meat.
“I hear a lot of people say it’s unfair, then they go and buy a hamburger at McDonald’s while I’m harvesting my own meat,” he said. “I’m all for changes that are humane, but there’s no way to get around it – something’s going to die.”
He looks around the clearing, at the paw prints in the muck, at the tree stand above.
“That bear lived his whole life in these woods, and then in 30 seconds it’s over. What’s more humane than that?”
On November 4, Maine voters will decide if there’s an answer to that question.