On the face of it, Maine has what seems like a wonderfully democratic and inclusive system. Briefly put, any constituent can contact her/his legislator and ask that person to submit a bill to the appropriate committee which then review it and possibly schedule it for a public hearing during which the issue can be discussed by those for or against it. The bill will then be subject to a committee work session, after which a vote will decide whether the bill should be approved as is, modified, or not approved at all. It is then submitted to the House and the Senate. Unfortunately, as many have learned, some issues raised by citizens don’t get very far, a case in point being virtually anything to do with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (DIFW) and the ways in which they manage the state’s animals. As one person recently — and aptly — put it “even with a new political environment, the third rail of politics in Augusta remains DIFW wildlife issues.”

For instance, one long-time resident recently submitted a number of bills to his state senator who agreed to sponsor “by request” which means as a favor to the constituent and which also denotes no particular support from the legislator. The senator then reduced that number to three, then further reduced it one, again by request, strongly implying that he would not introduce any legislation that would question Maine’s Coyote Killing Program or the intentional feeding of bears, the subjects of two of the constituent’s bills. The single remaining bill would be so commingled by different issues all wrapped in one confusing verbal document as to be almost devoid of the considered focus each subject deserved. As a result of this frustration, the constituent simply gave up.

The voice he was supposed to have was lost, but just as importantly, so was ours. Thanks to the way the system operates, the issues raised were never given the light of day, never discussed by the legislature, never presented to the public for their questions and opinions, never decided in the democratic way that they deserved.

Another example from another part of the state was a bill to change the make-up of DIFW’s Advisory Council. The local legislator at first indicated she would probably sponsor the bill, but then later declined. The result — another issue stifled, another concern removed from legislative and public consideration.

This is not uncommon. We can only guess why these issues and others like them don’t get very far in Augusta. One reason is the widespread influence of the state’s hunting and trapping lobbies, intrusive to the extent that legislators are reluctant to offend them by introducing legislation they won’t like. Another is the simple fact that the DIFW is a captured agency, a situation which occurs when a government entity promotes the interests of a relatively small minority over the rights of a much larger majority. It then becomes “captured” by advocates of self- interest as compared to serving the general good. It is, of course, the antithesis of democracy, as well as the undermining and ultimate suppression of citizens’ rights.

DIFW is a prime example of a public agency that has been captured — indeed almost held hostage — by the small minority of hunters and trappers whose influence far outweighs their numbers but whose licensing fees and related costs produce revenue for the department. Groups such as The Sportman’s Alliance of Maine, The Maine Trappers Association, the NRA and Safari International among others constitute special interests who vie for special treatment even though they constitute a small proportion of the state’s population. For instance, according to the department’s own figures, 196,146 Mainers purchased hunting licenses in 2014. In the same year, the state’s population was approximately 1,330,000. In other words, roughly 13 percent of Mainers hunt; the vast majority (nearly 87 percent) do not. In 2015, again based on the department’s own figures, only a mere 2,535 Mainers purchased trapping licenses. That’s a little less than 2 percent.

That raises the question — should only these small minorities make decisions about the state’s animals or should all citizens have a seat at the table? Let’s not forget that Maine’s wildlife is a vital part of the public domain, not some group’s private preserve to do with as they wish. Just as motorists don’t own public roads, boaters and swimmers don’t own public lakes, hikers don’t own public land, anglers don’t own the fish who live in public ponds and streams, so hunters and trappers don’t own the state’s wildlife. Their welfare is the province of all who live here and their well being is supposed to be reflected in the laws and regulations enacted to preserve, protect, and manage them.

When special interests interfere with majority rule and legislatures become obstructive and ineffective, the only remaining remedy for government failure is relief by citizen referendum, an expensive and time-consuming process that wouldn’t be necessary if the legislative process functioned as it was intended — as a public forum for the open exchange of ideas and concerns.

The current situation is not as it should be — far from it. Important issues affecting the state’s wildlife go unasked and unconsidered. For instance, should coyotes be indiscriminately killed by hunters paid by DIFW? Should bears be ambushed as they eat human junk food even though DIFW urges us not to feed wild animals? Should trapping wildlife and holding them in steel jaws until they are killed by a firearm or clubbed to death be allowed by any society that calls itself civilized and believes in humane treatment? These and other questions have a right to be heard, debated and decided, not only by the legislators people have chosen to represent them but also by the people themselves.

Anything less seriously undermines a basic and fundamental principle of democracy — decisions that are made for all should not be made by a few.

Don Loprieno, Bristol

Note: The public can contact members of the Joint Standing Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife about issues and concerns regarding DIFW’s management of animals at legislature.maine.gov/committee/#Committees/IFW