A ballot question that could ban the use of dogs, bait and traps for bear hunting in Maine has outside groups pouring money into the state on both sides of the issue.
The fundraising is taking place as both sides are intensifying campaigns for and against the Nov. 4 ballot measure. Television ads are airing and signs dot hundreds of street corners in the state.
Opponents have said passing the referendum would allow the state's bear population — estimated at about 30,000 — to grow, increasing the chances of dangerous encounters with humans. They have also said banning baiting and hounding would hurt tourism and put guides and outfitters out of business.
Ban proponents, meanwhile, say the hunting practices are cruel and unsporting. They have also said the bait hunters use — typically sugary human food such as doughnuts — have habituated the animals to humans.
Thirty-two states currently allow bear hunting but referendum supporters say none of them allow all three techniques targeted by the proposed restrictions.
State campaign finance reports released last week say pro-ban group Mainers For Fair Bear Hunting has raised $1.36 million in 2014 while Maine Wildlife Conservation Council, the largest group opposing the ban, has raised $1.87 million this year.
More than 96 percent of Mainers For Fair Bear Hunting's money is coming from Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society of the United States and its legislative fund.
Maine Wildlife Conservation Council's money is coming from many sources, including the Ohio-based U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, Arizona-based Safari Club International and numerous out-of-state hunting groups, from the Oregon United Sporting Dog Association to the Vermont chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. The largest single donation to the council is a $111,278.39 check from the in-state Maine Professional Guides Association.
Dozens of Maine donors, including individuals, businesses and nonprofit groups, have also donated to both sides. A group of smaller opposition committees, including the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, Virginia-based National Rifle Association and some in-state groups, have also raised more than $350,000.
Voters in Massachusetts, Colorado, Washington and Oregon banned bear hunting with bait and hounds between 1992 and 1996. Supporters of Maine's current hunting practices say bear populations have grown and reports of nuisance bears have increased in states that have imposed such restrictions.
Both the Maine Wildlife Conservation Council and Mainers For Fair Bear Hunting acknowledged that outside money is playing a big role in the campaign.
"There's out-of-state money on both sides of this issue," said Katie Hansberry, campaign director for Mainers For Fair Bear Hunting.
Each side is spending more than $1 million of its war chest on television advertising.
"It's likely to be won and lost on TV," said James Cote, a spokesman for Maine Wildlife Conservation Council.