BANGOR – Despite a much closer race than anticipated, the citizen referendum to ban bear baiting was headed to a narrow defeat. Seven hours after the polls closed Tuesday night, the margin of victory on Question 2 had widened to 6 percent.
With 87 percent of precincts reporting at 2:45 a.m. Wednesday, the official 53 percent “no” to 47 percent “yes” tally indicated that opponents of the ban had pulled ahead permanently. Voters in nine mostly rural counties were opposing the measure overwhelmingly, while more southern and coastal parts of the state were almost evenly divided. Voters within Portland city limits gave the ban strong support.
Exit polling in 70 communities around the state had predicted the north-south split along congressional district boundaries, as well as following partisan lines, with 65 percent of Republicans opposing the ban and 60 percent of Democrats voting yes.
Question 2 asked Mainers to ban three types of bear hunting – baiting bears, often with stale pastries, then shooting them while they feed; chasing bears with packs of hounds; and shooting bears restrained by traps.
Maine Citizens for Fair Bear Hunting has spent the past year trying to convince voters that the methods are cruel and unnecessary. However, the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Gov. John Baldacci and a coalition of hunting groups called Maine’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council worked to defeat the ban, predicting economic ruin for northern Maine and burgeoning bear populations putting families at risk.
By Election Day, more than $2 million had been raised to fight the campaign, primarily in television ads that reached an emotional fervor in recent weeks. Information about the complex issue was abundant, if not always accurate.
Early polls conducted by the Humane Society of the United States suggested that as many as 70 percent of Mainers opposed baiting, but over the past year, that advantage evaporated. As recently as last week, polls suggested that “No on 2″ forces held a comfortable, though dwindling, lead.
Both camps settled in for a long night.
“It’s nerve-wracking, to say the least,” said Bob Fisk, spokesman for Maine Citizens for Fair Bear Hunting, speaking from his Falmouth headquarters where about 100 people had gathered to watch the election returns early in the evening. However, the group had closed its doors and stopped taking telephone calls while several southern Maine towns still were in play.
About 35 people remained at a Brewer gathering for referendum opponents to celebrate what seemed to be a clear victory at about 2:30 a.m., council spokeswoman Edie Leary said early Wednesday morning.
Leary credited the victory to high turnouts among the core voters in northern and western Maine who had opposed the referendum from the beginning.
“People decided to respect Maine’s hunting heritage,” she said. “They don’t believe a question like this belongs on the ballot.”
The six-point margin wasn’t a surprise, matching predictions made by the group’s internal polls late last week, Leary said.
“Everything we’d heard was that it would go down to the wire,” added Mark Latti, spokesman for DIF&W.
Latti saw the vote as a validation of the state’s scientists and DIF&W’s bear management policies. However, the closeness of the election sent the state a message that citizen involvement in wildlife policymaking must continue, he said early Wednesday morning.
Division over the bear referendum made its way into the booth Tuesday, as many voters were torn, wishing they could consider the three hunting methods separately, according to an informal survey of voters at a Bangor precinct Tuesday afternoon.
Trapping, as depicted in heart-wrenching advertisements by pro-referendum groups in recent weeks, drew the most opposition, with several “yes” voters in Bangor citing the fact that Maine is the only state to allow the practice as the major impetus for their decision.
But others voted against the triple ban to protect the pieces important to them. Russell Bragg opposes the use of dogs and traps but believes that baiting can be done responsibly, while Tony Margaronis opposes trapping but wants to protect the sport of hunting with dogs. It’s all about how the hunter practices his sport, the men said.
As fellow “no” voter Kim Douglas put it, “We should be out trying to get the people who are doing things wrong, not penalizing those who do it right.”
Douglas was among the few who said the predicted economic impact affected her vote. “The state has lost so much business and revenue, and I was convinced that this would be yet another blow,” she said.
Far more voters spoke of their fear that bears could prove dangerous if populations increase.
“I wouldn’t want to see us overrun with bear,” said Rita Yardley.
But a surprisingly high number of their fellow Bangor voters said the cruelty argument resonated the strongest.
“We have to find a more humane way,” said Angela Powell.
Catharine Cavanaugh felt strongly about the cruelty issue and voted for the ban. But like most Mainers, she will be glad to see the close of the campaign, with its nonstop television image of a bear bleating in pain, desperate to escape a trap.
“I hope I never ever have to see that commercial again,” she said.
Voters in Alaska, too, defeated a referendum to ban bear baiting Tuesday, according to early returns compiled by the Anchorage Daily News.
Earlier versions of this article ran in the State and Coastal editions.