Let’s hope every Maine bear hunter this fall gets his or her bear. We’ve got way too many bears. It’s a very good thing that Maine voters defeated proposals to prohibit the use of traps, bait, and dogs for bear hunting. If that had happened, we’d probably be shooting bears in our homes, as recently happened in California. I’ll tell you more about that story at the end of this column
Here’s some important information, straight from DIF&W’s history of Maine’s bears. Maine’s bear population numbered 21,000 in 1985. By 1989, the population had declined to 18,000 bears in response to increasing harvest. Hunting seasons were adjusted and the population rebounded to 21,000 by 1997. Maine’s bear population stabilized at 23,000 in 1999. Starting in 2005, the population began increasing in response to declining hunter participation and harvest and by 2010 was at over 31,000 bears. Initial estimates for 2015, indicate that the bear population is still increasing and likely approaching 36,000.
This doesn’t mean we couldn’t support more bears. Again, from DIF&W’s report: Maine’s forest could support (i.e., carrying capacity) estimated at between 31,000 and 42,000 bears. This number was generated from acreage of bear habitat in Maine, the quality of bear habitat, and the assumption that optimal bear habitat could support between 1.5 and 2 bears/square mile. Today, Maine’s bear population is close to exceeding the 2000 estimates of carrying capacity; however, other indicators (healthy bears during den visits, high survival of cubs, and low levels of conflicts, road mortalities, disease and starvation) suggest that Maine’s bear population remains below biological and social carrying capacity.
It’s that “social carrying capacity” that is really the issue. At the last meeting of the agency’s Big Game Steering Committee, these questions were raised: Do we need a population target? Should we actually reverse growth? How can we balance social and biological carrying capacity? And most interesting, what is the impact of bear carrying capacity on deer and moose?
While it doesn’t get much attention, bears do kill a lot of deer in Maine.
Here’s what DIF&W’s bear history reports. Although bears continue to damage property, conflicts with people remain low. Between 1989 and 2003, IFW received an average of 300 calls of bear conflicts. Since 2008, the number has increased to an average of 500 complaints annually (range= 311-827), but the increase may be attributed to a new automated reporting mechanism for Maine wardens. The number of conflicts vary depending on natural food supplies that generally alternate from good to poor (Figure 2). The most common complaints involve damage to bird feeders and bears getting into garbage. Although bear damage to agricultural crops and livestock is relatively low in Maine, the most prevalent is damage to bee hives established to pollinate blueberries in eastern Maine. With an increased interest in backyard farming, damage to chicken coops and small livestock is becoming more prevalent in some communities.
The Washington Post recently reported an astonishing story of a woman who had a friend shoot and kill a 400-pound bear that had broken into her kitchen and attacked the family dog. She’d moved her waste inside after the bear had gotten into it in her garage.
But the next day, she came home with her three young children to find the bear inside her kitchen. She called 911 and a game warden arrived, after the bear had left.
The woman got the required permit from California’s Fish and Wildlife Department, but after her friend killed the animal when it entered her property for the third day in a row, she was vilified by her neighbors. “I’ve had death threats and my address posted all over social media,” she told reporter Peter Holley. Her neighbors referred to her as a “flatlander” who had “no business” living in their neighborhood. Ironically, the woman is an animal lover who fostered 15 dogs over the previous year.
The real problem became apparent as I read the lengthy news story. One nearby neighbor said one of her favorite things about that neighborhood was seeing bears in her yard. She’d even named the bear that was killed “Big Red.” She called him a “gentle giant.”
“He wasn’t this mean, aggressive bear that they’ve made him out to be,” she reported. “These bears were hungry and they look for food, and if it’s not property stored, they’ll find it.”
Indeed, even if they have to break into your house!
Folks from California’s Fish and Wildlife Department explained the facts of bear life in the story, including this: “Although black bears rarely attack and generally avoid people, they are powerful animals and are capable of injuring or killing people. A bear can be very dangerous if provoked or conditioned to people. ‘Conditioned’ means the bear is used to being around humans.”
Among suggestions for reducing Maine’s bear population are the restoration of a spring bear hunt and an expansion of the bag limit to two bears per hunter. The latter seems like a good approach. And we’re not going to have a spring bear hunt.
I was surprised years ago, when restoration of a spring hunt was being discussed, to have a prominent bear guide and lodge owner tell me they didn’t want a spring hunt. They thought it would not bring new customers to Maine to hunt bears, but would expand their season and costs, with some of the fall bear hunters opting to come, instead, in the spring.
You will have a chance, later this year, to comment on DIF&W’s new bear management plan, before it is officially adopted, and it will be interesting to see what they decide to do to reduce our state’s large population of bears.