U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region/Flickr

The most contentious issue Maine voters are facing in Tuesday's midterm election isn’t the Affordable Care Act or the Common Core but rather a referendum on bear hunting that seeks to eliminate the use of bait, traps, and dogs.

Attracting millions of dollars in outside money, the issue has been making national headlines and inciting passion from both sides of the debate, so much so that several employees of Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which opposes the referendum, are under protection due to credible death threats.

What is it about bear hunting that provokes such strong emotions? The history of bear hunting is unusually complex, because the “bear” referred to in bear hunting is actually many species of bears, occupying a range of cultural categories from “predator” to “pet.” From the twelfth century onward, for example, courtiers and kings in Europe refused to hunt brown bears, but it wasn’t because they were too cute to kill: It was because they were ignoble beasts. This is why Molière’s play from 1664, La princesse d’Elide, included a scene where peasants ran after thieving bears while the princess hunted “noble game” (in this case, red deer).

Over time, the negative perception of bears shifted. Several bear species became endangered. Today, the polar bear, the panda, the koala, and the grizzly have become prominent symbols of habitat loss and accelerated rates of extinction. But to Americans, the most iconic bear of all isn’t a species but a stuffed toy, the teddy bear.

Famously, the teddy bear was the unexpected artifact of an actual bear hunt undertaken by president Theodore Roosevelt in the American South. Histories of the beloved toy typically foster a narrative that goes something like this: Chased by dogs, an injured black bear had been tied to a tree. When the president refused to shoot the sad creature, a charmed nation embraced “Teddy’s bear” to acknowledge his compassion for helpless animals.

Yet it wasn’t compassion so much as a hunter’s code that informed Roosevelt’s seemingly noble actions. In 1887, before he became president, Roosevelt founded the Boone & Crockett Club to champion big-game hunting, which he resumed with gusto after he finished his second term in office. Perplexingly, the Boone & Crockett Club is also the country’s oldest wildlife conservation organization, fighting to keep the wilderness wild because it supports hunting.

Still, on the face of it, the idea of naming a toy bear after a big game hunter would seem perverse, were it not for the fact that in 1902, this presidential hunt was taking place under fraught political conditions, elevating an otherwise mundane activity to the level of national discourse.

Roosevelt was touring Mississippi to resolve a border dispute. He decided to take a needed vacation, and accepted a longstanding invitation to hunt with Andrew Longino, the Democrat Governor of Mississippi. It was November and bear hunting season—and also the scene of a vicious fight for the governorship.

Up for reelection, Longino faced Mississippi senator James Vardaman, an ardent white supremacist who would go on to defeat Longino the following year. To Vardaman, African Americans were “lazy, lying, lustful animal[s], which no amount of training can transform into a tolerable citizen.” His solution was lynching.

Against a background of inflammatory rhetoric, the presidential bear hunt embarked with a former slave named Holt Collier leading the way. For Collier to guide the sitting president through the backwoods of Mississippi carried immense symbolic weight. Among other things, it affirmed a particularly American version of the hunt, which challenged the European, aristocratic version by infusing it with a form of meritocratic individualism. Whatever else they may have thought of Collier, historian Douglas Brinkley noted, plantation owners “bragged” that that this former slave, who had served as a Confederate scout during the Civil War, knew the local terrain better than any other man and was an exceptional bear hunter.

The terrain was wide-ranging and dangerous, requiring fifty dogs to scent the quarry and give chase. After days of hard hunting, the pack cornered an adult black bear of 235 pounds. Collier successfully tied it to a tree, then blew the hunter’s bugle to summon the president to his location. When Roosevelt refused to raise his rifle to deliver the fatal shot, the other men in the hunting party killed it, threw it on the back of a horse. They brought it to their base camp, where they undoubtedly ate it for supper, as bear meat was a culinary delicacy.

On November 17, 1902, cartoonist Clifford Berryman created the now-famous image showing Roosevelt refusing to shoot a miniaturized black bear with a rope around its neck, captioned, “Drawing the Line.” The president’s great-grandson, Theodore Roosevelt IV, stressed in a telephone conversation with me that the caption was understood to be a double entendre. As he explained, the president’s refusal to shoot the bear not only reinforced the ethics of the hunt (which distinguishes itself from slaughter or extermination by requiring that the quarry has a chance to escape or fight), but drew a personal line against lynching, which at the time was a national problem and an especially acute one in the South.

Clifford Berryman/Library of Congress

In Berryman’s subsequent sketches, the black bear became smaller, rounder, and cuter, turning into an anthropomorphic baby bear named “Bruin.” The cartoon bear was so adorable that, as Roosevelt IV related to me, Brooklyn toymaker Rose Michtom had the idea to turn him into a stuffed toy and rechristen him “Teddy” after the president. (Roosevelt IV adds that the president didn’t think an association with him would help these toys sell, but was nonetheless flattered by the idea.)

The bear became an immense hit, in no small part because it had emerged out of the progressive, idealistic values of a nation struggling unsuccessfully to pass anti-lynching laws and contend with the legacy of slavery. Without the historical moment shaping the toy’s reception, turning it into a panacea for political guilt, naming a stuffed black bear after a Great White Hunter would have seemed ridiculous.

In 1907, Roosevelt’s vice president, Charles Fairbanks, sought the Republican nomination for presidency. Roosevelt did not support Fairbanks’ bid, prompting the satirical magazine Puck to mock his campaign by drawing him as a “Charliebear … to combat the alarming popularity of the Teddybear [sic].”

Neither Fairbanks nor the “Charliebear” won the public’s heart. Instead, William H. Taft snagged the nomination. When Taft won the presidency the following year, his boosters tried to replace the teddy bear with a stuffed opossum called “Billy Possum”.

Despite a flood of marketing pushing the new toy, Billy Possum was a dud. But the fact that Taft thought he could replace a baby bear with a beady-eyed marsupial helps place their shifting cultural status into historical perspective. Possums have remained varmints, an image that bears have largely shed. Much of that revised status can be attributed to the enduring popularity of a plushy whose success could hardly have been predicted.

A succession of his golden cousins—Teddy Ruxpin, Care Bear, Paddington Bear, Winnie-the-Pooh, Fozzie Bear, and many more—have since tied the bear to an image of childhood innocence and thence back to “nature” again. Ironically, that protective net was first cast by Roosevelt over a century ago, starting with the founding of Boone & Crockett. When his presidency created the U.S. Forest Service and America’s national parks, he launched the wilderness conservation movement that gave rise to the politics of sentiment now buoying today’s anti-hunting groups.

With each successive generation, the reality of the hunt has retreated, replaced with pop culture caricatures ranging from perverted rednecks (Deliverance) or gritty goddesses (Katniss of The Hunger Games). In real life, however, hunting is a study in patience. Kelly Meggison, a native of Cornish, Maine, hunts bear over bait, and passed up opportunities such as an adult sow (a female bear) because he suspected she had cubs. “Three cubs showed up,” he told me. Legally, he could have shot the mother but didn’t, because of the hunter’s code. In five years of bear hunting, he has filled one tag. The meat went into his freezer.

The story is a common one. Because the Maine woods are dark and deep, hunting over bait isn’t like shooting fish in a barrel, and hardly anyone uses traps or dogs because of the time involved. The low numbers of tags being filled is partially what is driving the exploding black bear population in Maine, New Jersey, New York, and elsewhere, leading to increasingly common collisions between man and bear.

These bears are on their way to becoming nuisance animals due to their sheer quantities, which is why Maine state wildlife biologists do not support the referendum. The alternatives to legal hunting are much worse for the bears, in part because a bear that kills a human is never allowed to live even when the human is at fault.

If the politics of this issue are confusing, blame the teddy bear.

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