Date of Award

Summer 8-16-2019

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Wildlife Ecology and Wildlife Conservation


Carly Sponarski

Second Committee Member

Laura Rickard

Third Committee Member

Sandra de Urioste-Stone


Human dimensions of wildlife is an emerging discipline that seeks to understand the complex relationships between people, wildlife, and their conflicts and/or interactions (Decker, Riley, & Siemer, 2012). Human dimensions utilizes several tested theoretical frameworks to investigate these complexities, such as cognitive hierarchy theory and wildlife value orientations (WVOs). Both of these theoretical frameworks were examined in this study, which investigated the content of news media during controversial American black bear (Ursus americanus) hunting referenda in Maine, and key stakeholder perceptions of black bear management. Maine is the only state that allows hunters to take a black bear over bait, with hounds, and with traps (Gore, 2003; Morell, 2014). Due to perceptions that some or all of these harvest methods are cruel and unfair, Maine has endured two state-wide referendums that called on citizens to consider eliminating the three practices entirely (Gore, 2003; Morell, 2014). In 2004 and 2014, both referendums narrowly failed, thus stabilizing the legitimacy of current bear hunting practices (Maine Secretary of State, 2004; Maine Secretary of State, 2014). This complex debate has permeated and divided the state politically, ethically, and socially for decades. This study explored the nature of the debate via quantitative and qualitative research, and delivered several valuable findings that could help to mitigate future conflict amongst key stakeholders.

A quantitative content analysis (QCA) of news media surrounding Maine’s controversial bear hunting referendums was utilized to explore the presence of differing cognitions toward current bear management. Various stakeholder groups vocalized their opinions in news media before, during, and after both referendums. It is clear that media played an integral role in informing the public of this issue in Maine. The initial part of this study investigated the representation of different debate themes in public discourse. A total of 247 newspaper articles from Maine’s five major newspapers by distribution were analyzed surrounding the referendums. Cognitive hierarchy theory guided our analysis of attitudes, beliefs, and norms toward baiting, hounding, and trapping that were present in news media. Our results illustrated that those in favor of the referendums frequently expressed negative attitudes toward baiting, hounding, and trapping, while conversely those against the referendums argued that they believe Maine needs these methods to control the population and that these methods benefit humans. These findings guided our characterization of the debate and our conclusions regarding the future of black bear hunting policy. Through the exploration of the debate’s substance in news media, our research is an important step toward developing effective communication strategies amongst key stakeholders.

The second portion of this thesis utilizes a phenomenological approach to explore how cognitions, wildlife value orientations, and differing perceptions about bear hunting practices in Maine ultimately characterize the issue and provide clarity when determining ways to mitigate future conflict amongst stakeholders. This study used combined online questionnaire and semi- structured interviews with key stakeholders within the debate to explore varying perceptions regarding bear management. Key stakeholders were identified from the QCA of news media and then asked to participate in the online questionnaire and semi-structured interview. These two methods allowed us to investigate latent cognitions toward bear management and WVOs, as well as stakeholders’ motivations for being involved in shaping bear hunting policy, thoughts on the contentious nature of the debate, effects that the referenda processes had on their mental health and feelings of personal safety, and insights regarding strategies for developing bear hunting policy that is representative of all interest groups and in line with the best available science. Our results revealed the need for the extension of legitimacy and respect for collaboration amongst diverse stakeholders and possible practical changes to the black bear management plan in Maine. Ultimately, it is clear that a future bear hunting referendum would be detrimental to the integrity of the stakeholder community and would only divide stakeholder groups further.

This research contributes to human dimensions of black bear and game management literature. In this study, we supplied several potential approaches to developing a stakeholder community that is respectful, communicative, and capable of pursuing logical compromises in a future black bear management plan.