Maine's bear hunting season is underway amid a drive from animal rights activists to ban three methods of hunting the animals.
State residents will vote in November on a proposal to ban hunting bears with bait, dogs, or traps. The general bear hunting season began Monday and closes Nov. 29.
Opponents of the three methods say hunting with dogs and traps is cruel, and bait, usually sugary food such as doughnuts and molasses, habituates bears to humans.
But many hunters, hunting outfitters and the state's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife said banning the methods would hurt the state's tourism, economy and ability to control the bear population.
Vassalboro bear hunter Cathy DeMerchant, who has harvested nine bears during the past 18 years and rendered all of them into food, said the hunting methods are essential for maintaining the state's bear population, which sits at about 30,000. State officials say the bear count has climbed 30 percent in the past decade.
"It's going to have a huge economic impact on the state if this passes, in addition to a huge impact on the animals," DeMerchant said.
Katie Hansberry, campaign director for Mainers For Fair Bear Hunting, said hunting with bait is a major cause of the state's surge in nuisance bear complaints. An average year brings about 500 complaints about nuisance bears, but this year there already have been 625, state officials said.
"We're putting 7 million pounds of human junk food into the woods every year," she said.
Maine hunters are limited to two bears per year - one by hunting and one by trapping. The state has sold more than 10,000 bear hunting permits per year for the past three years. Hunters harvested 2,845 bears last year, which state officials said is well below the target of 3,500 to 4,500.
Hunting with bait - by far the most common method in Maine - ends Sept. 20, while hunting with dogs runs Sept. 8 to Oct. 31 and trapping runs Sept. 1 to Oct. 31.