Maine Bear Hunting Referendum: Ballot box biology shouldn’t replace biologists

I’ve asked people who are involved in Maine’s bear hunt to tell us their stories. We’re likely to be voting on a referendum in November that calls for the end of baiting, hounding and snaring/trapping. If this passes it will affect the bears, hunters, timber management companies, store owners, guides, lodge and camp owners and many more.

I’m starting with Tenley Bennett, Registered Maine Guide at Fish River Lodge in Eagle Lake. She’s a long time hunter and well-rounded outdoorswoman. I asked questions I think will help people better understand the consequences of losing our current hunting methods.

This is Tenley Bennett.

Raised a duck hunter in the 1970s I enjoyed taking friends and family members out to the blind to experience wing shooting for the first time. This became my inspiration for becoming a guide. I started actively guiding upland bird hunters and dog sledding day-trips in 1999 after obtaining my hunting, fishing, and recreational guide licenses. Over the years I hunted upland birds, deer, and bear and fished throughout the state. Depending on the season, most weekends I was traveling somewhere in Maine to hunt, fish, paddle, or run sled dogs. Finally, in 2005 I bought Fish River Lodge on Eagle Lake in the St. John Valley of Aroostook County. My husband Wayne and I offer spring fishing for landlocked salmon and brook trout, family vacations, paddling adventures, and guided hunting trips.

What hunts do you guide?

I guide upland birds, bear, moose, and deer hunters. But my specialty is bear-over-bait and moose. Hunting bear over bait is not as easy as our opponents claim. I enjoy the challenge of establishing reliable bait sites and working as a team with my clients to increase their chances for success when hunting bear over bait. Depending on the availability of natural feeds, a hunter’s experience, willingness to take advice from their guide, and willingness of a bear to frequent a bait site during legal hunting hours at the same time a hunter is there all affect success rates.

What losses will you suffer if we lose our hunting methods?

We are one of the smaller bear hunting outfits and handle 15-18 bear hunters a year. Our guided bear and moose hunts make the difference between Fish River Lodge operating in the red or in the black. Most sporting camps operate on very small margins. We’ve all struggled to stay afloat since the downturn in the economy so any losses are immediately felt and few losses can be absorbed without negatively affecting our bottom line. Without getting in to a whole discussion about our business model, suffice it to say that any loss of revenue will put a sporting camp’s financial viability at risk. Business owners can only absorb losses for a short time before they must close. Consider the number of sporting camps today compared to the 1970s and 80s. There are fewer of us and those that remain have struggled.

Tenley Bennett, Registered Maine Guide

Tenley Bennett with successful bear hunters.  Photo courtesy of Tenley Bennett

Hunters already aren’t harvesting the number of bears biologists would like to see. Can you continue to guide bear hunts without bait sites?

In addition to guiding bear hunters over bait, I could also guide bear hunters who choose not to hunt over bait although I have never been contracted to do so. 100% of my bear hunt guiding is for bear-over-bait. Look at it this way – roughly 93% of our black bears are killed using three methods: hunting over bait, with hounds, and by trapping. The state’s biologists recommend we manage our bear population by removing roughly 4,000 bear a year. There is absolutely no way we can reach those harvest objectives with the remaining methods…bears killed incidental to hunting other Maine game, or “spot and stalk.” If we lose the three most effective methods for managing our bear population it’s a pretty good bet I will no longer be guiding bear hunters. That is a shame and a huge loss of revenue to Maine’s rural economy and the state.

Can you make up for the lodge’s losses?

No. Ten years ago we had to defend Maine’s bear management program when we had a similar referendum. Ultimately the question then was the same as it is now: Do we use ballot-box-biology or the recommendations of Maine’s professional biologists to manage our black bear population? You would think the answer is simple – of course we should entrust wildlife management to trained biologists. The consequences of getting the answer wrong are complex.

Consequences will include more bear/human conflicts; loss of revenue through license sales; loss of revenue from the sale of gas, food, lodging, guides, and a multitude of other purchases hunters make all the way from Kittery to Fort Kent; tying the hands of our respected biologists and their ability to do their jobs; loss of jobs when sporting camps close and the “trickle down” effect in Maine’s rural economy.

Can the state, or can I make up the loss? No. There is absolutely no way to compensate for that kind of lost revenue. Sure, I can try to create new revue streams but the argument that we can fill the void with “ecotourism” is a lie. I already cater to “ecotourists” as a recreational guide but there is little demand for those kinds of services. And let’s not forget the “loss” of our biologist’s ability to do their jobs managing Maine’s black bears. The greatest loss of all would be taking biology out of the hands of professionals and turning it over to the ballot box.

Robin Follette

About Robin Follette

Maine Press Association award winner, 2013. Robin's Outdoors, Bangor Daily News, third place in Sports blogs. I grew up with a fishing pole in my hand and have always loved the outdoors. From gardening to hunting and fishing, kayaking, camping, hiking and foraging, most of my time is spent outdoors. I teach outdoor skills as a volunteer instructor for Hooked On Fishing - Not On Drugs and Becoming an Outdoors-Woman. Pro-staff at The Limb Grip. My personal blog is here. I'm currently working on my first book, a collection of short stories based on my outdoors experiences.