IF&W Committee Member Sen. Anne Haskell (D-Portland), an avid hunter who opposes SAM’s prposed constitutional amendment. - Photo Courtesy of Anne Haskell
IF&W Committee Member Sen. Anne Haskell (D-Portland), an avid hunter who opposes SAM’s prposed constitutional amendment. - Photo Courtesy of Anne Haskell
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Of all of the many political rivals in Augusta, there are few more bitterly opposed to each other than the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine (SAM). On one side, HSUS lobbies for what it believes are more ethical hunting laws, such as bans on the practice of canned hunting, as well as the trapping, baiting and hounding of predators, such as bear, bobcat and coyotes. On the other side, are sportsmen who say Maine's traditional hunting heritage is being attacked by special interest groups from away, who aim to abolish hunting as we know it. Historically, the animal protection side has had a minimal influence on Augusta lawmakers, and SAM has been very effective at mobilizing its passionate base. Sportsmen were able to stave off a 2004 citizen referendum to ban bear hunting with bait and dogs, but animal-welfare activists have regrouped and have made known their intention to put a new bear referendum on the ballot next year.

According to Maine's HSUS director, Katie Hansberry, the organization hoped to find some compromise with SAM before going to referendum with a piece of legislation they called "The Bear Protection Act." LD 1474, sponsored by Rep. Denise Harlow (D-Portland), would have prohibited the trapping and hounding of bears, decreased the bear bag limit from 2 to 1, closed the bear hunting season from January 1 to July 31, and prohibited the sale and trade of bear gall bladders.

"We made a good-faith effort to reach out to the stakeholders on the other side to have a conversation with them and to see if we could find some common ground or to work on something through the legislative process as opposed to going through the ballot box," said Hansberry. "If we can get something through the Legislature, we would prefer to forego the expense and the commitment of pursuing something on the ballot."

However, SAM Director David Trahan says that "good-faith effort" was more like political extortion than an attempt at compromise. At a meeting before the public hearing for LD 1474 in May, Trahan said he and Don Kleiner of the Maine Professional Guides Association were summoned to a room with five HSUS lobbyists and given an ultimatum.

"They sat me down and they said, 'We have $3 million dollars, polling data that says we can win a bear referendum in Maine, and if SAM will support LD 1474, HSUS will not submit a referendum to ban trapping and hounding. If SAM doesn't support LD 1474, HSUS will add baiting to their bill and go to referendum, and Mainers would likely lose baiting, hounding and trapping,'" said Trahan, adding, "That's not how we do business in Maine."

Trahan was not swayed by their proposal, and he testified against LD 1474, arguing that it took away the only tool sportsmen have to effectively control an increasing bear population. The committee wasted no time in killing LD 1474 unanimously.

Although Trahan had admittedly spent 90 percent of his time defeating gun control bills this session, SAM immediately turned its focus toward launching a preemptive strike against the impending bear referendum. SAM's bill LD 1303, sponsored by House Republican Leader Ken Fredette, proposes an amendment to the Maine Constitution that would enshrine the right to hunt and fish. If approved by the voters, the measure would prohibit any citizen referendum from ever regulating that right, but would leave open the option to expand hunting and fishing opportunities. LD 1303 came out of the Inland Fish & Wildlife Committee with a strong bipartisan vote of 12 to 1 in favor of the proposed constitutional amendment. Committee member Rep. Jeff Evangelos (I-Friendship) offered mild support for the bill.

"This is a difficult issue," said Evangelos. "Hunters have become very concerned that out-of-state anti-hunting groups are going to challenge Maine's hunting traditions. My constituents support this proposal, so I decided to vote yes and represent their interests."

However, Sen. Anne Haskell (D-Portland), the sole dissenter on LD 1303, says the measure crosses the line. "I think that it's fundamentally wrong," said Haskell. "I don't want a part of having voted to take away the right of the people of the state of Maine to petition their government on fish and wildlife issues."
Former SAM director George Smith has also been skeptical of the initiative to amend the constitution. After successfully raising $1.5 million in mostly out-of-state money to defeat the 2004 bear hunting referendum, Smith proposed a similar amendment, which garnered very little support. Smith says a better use of time and resources would be to get started on fundraising to defeat the next referendum rather than risk losing big on a ballot question he's not confident the voters will support.

"I think it's a tough sell to convince the public that they shouldn't have any say," said Smith.

Nevertheless, Trahan said a constitutional amendment is warranted.

"Given the threat to hunting and fishing that HSUS represents, I don't think that it's unreasonable to try to do this," said Trahan. "We're not against anyone bringing in a bill, but we are against the manipulation of our referendum process. The only advantage that the HSUS has in the legislative process is their deep pockets. They have the ability to go on TV and shape their message and pound away on our TVs in Maine residents' homes on a message that isn't accurate. We believe that biologists and people at the Department of IF&W are the best managers of wildlife."

Smith said that from a messaging standpoint, Trahan's argument runs contrary to the way SAM tries to shape public policy.

"It's a little difficult to maintain that we should leave these decisions up to professionals and scientists at the department when we're the ones that are usually making them do things with our legislation and proposals," said Smith. "We are seldom willing to let the professionals make all of the decisions - to the point where we have an advisory council that can stop almost anything."

The 10-member Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Advisory Council is a board of governor's appointees that advises the IF&W Commissioner concerning the duties of the department. In an op-ed in the Bangor Daily News, Trahan questioned whether Smith was "unwittingly" helping the HSUS after Smith pointed out that sportsmen would have a difficult time raising the money to fight another bear referendum. Smith says some people have forgotten that he's a writer now and no longer a lobbyist.

"I fear that my side is overconfident. They think, 'Oh yeah, bring 'em on. We'll beat 'em again!'" said Smith. "They perhaps don't understand, like I do, what it took in 2004 to win. Maine has changed some in the past 10 years, and it's going to be harder now."

Smith says that sportsmen account for less than 10 percent of the voting population, and in his experience fighting the 2004 referendum he found that voters were not too concerned about the future of Maine's hunting industry and heritage. The only message that worked was that "bears are scary." The 2004 referendum to ban bear hunting with bait and dogs went down to defeat, 53 percent to 47 percent.

Daryl DeJoy, founder of the Wildlife Alliance of Maine (WAM), which supports HSUS's referendum, says he has also observed the shift in public opinion on certain hunting practices in recent years.

"We've never tried to take away hunting rights and we never will try to take away hunting rights, but there are a lot of things that go on in the Maine woods that the citizens of Maine have a right to vote on," said DeJoy. "Any time you have a group who is in the minority and sees that something is coming to an end, there's always going to be some number of them that are going to struggle and try anything to maintain the control they've had. This high emotional response - which I believe is what LD 1303 is - is a thinly veiled attempt at maintaining control."

Trahan is convinced that the economic argument will have an impact on the vote, since he says hunting and fishing have over a billion-dollar impact on the state economy.