Last Saturday, August 29, new legislation regarding bears took effect with the first Youth Bear Hunting Day, apparently based on the concept that youth is an important time to teach values but instead of, say, canoeing up a stream, hiking the Appalachian Trail, camping overnight in a state park, or treating animals with kindness – in other words, the idea that you can enjoy nature without taking something from it -it’s an attempt to introduce a new generation to killing bears over bait, in traps or shot out of trees at point blank range, all at a time when there’s already too much violence in the world.
The sponsor of this legislation (LD 399) Representative Stephen Wood, a Republican from Sabattus, is a member of the same committee that heard the bill, and is personally known to them as a colleague and possibly a friend. He is also part owner of a guide service, offering moose, deer and bear hunts, which means he had a clear financial stake in the outcome. This, in turn, raises the question that if the sponsor of a bill may derive personal benefit from its passage, is this not a conflict of interest?
However, this apparent impropriety hints at a much deeper and widespread problem. The committee has twelve voting members, of whom at least nine and possibly more are either members of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, have been highly rated by SAM for their support, or, in some cases, both. The same applies to the sponsor and most of the co-sponsors of LD 399. Two committee members, in fact, serve on SAM’s executive board and one is also a former Commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. It is not unusual for a former Commissioner to serve on the committee and sometimes the other way around, in what amounts to a kind of revolving door. The present head of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Chandler Woodcock, was a member of the committee, as was David Trahan, now Executive Director of SAM.
One result is a very close relation amongst members of the committee and members of hunting-affiliated organizations, and a feeling on the part of the public, if they attend hearings and testify for or against impending bills, that they have intruded upon the banter and social interactions of what appears to be a private club.
Theoretically, the committee is a legislative body elected by the citizens of Maine, and therefore should represent the concerns of all who live here as they are affected by the jurisdiction of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, but that is not the case. In fact, because most of committee are either affiliated with SAM, rated highly by that organization or both, the result is an almost complete agreement with and approval of bills that support a special interest – the powerful hunting and trapping lobby that dominates Maine’s political scene.
What’s wrong with this picture? Imagine an environmental committee whose members were oil executives, or a committee to determine appropriate legal fees for attorneys staffed only by lawyers. What should be a representative balance in the IFW committee is instead a classic case of the tail wagging the dog. The majority of the committee members represents a minority of the state’s population (the approximately 11% who hunt) while everyone else gets no representation at all. The outcome is predictable. Almost any legislation that promotes hunting of any sort, of any animal, with virtually any weapon (a recent bill even urged the use of slingshots) gets passed, while any proposal that advocates kinder, less cruel methods gets defeated time after time.
Until the way that constituting the IFW committee is changed, and control of the many by the few comes an end, we may all wonder – and with good reason – whatever happened to the voice of all the people, one of the hallmarks of democracy itself.