Can deer hunters harvest more bears?

bear DIF&W image websiteDeer hunters shoot very few bears. Nevertheless, in the draft of the new deer management plan, DIF&W includes a strategy of encouraging more deer hunters to shoot bears.

A reader of my Capitol Report in The Maine Sportsman emailed me a question about this issue. I passed the question on to the department and the very-capable Jennifer Vashon responded. Jen is a Canada Lynx and Black Bear Biologist for DIF&W’s Mammal Program.

I thought you might be interested in the question and Jen’s response. Here they are.

The Question

Dear Mr. Smith,

I was amused by your November Capitol Report regarding too many bears. Why did Maine essentially close the bear season to non-residents during deer season? I’m curious how many bears were being shot during deer season by non-residents, one or two dozen?

In 1989, 662 Big Bucks were taken. In 2015, 343 Big Bucks were taken. As there are so few deer, why not open November to non-resident deer hunters who choose to shoot a bear without buying a special license?

Sincerely, Martin Schwimmer

Jennifer VashonJen Vashon’s Response

Mr. Schwimmer,

George Smith passed your concern re: the Maine legislature’s passage of a bill in 2008 that required non-residents deer hunters to purchase a permit to harvest a bear during the November firearm season.   You posed very good questions and we have taken the opportunity to address the potential impact that non-resident Nov. bear permit could have on the bear harvest below.

You may be surprised to learn that the permit has not reduced the harvest by non-resident deer hunters especially if you exclude 2006 which was an unusual year.  In the years prior to permit, an average of 15 bears were harvested by non-resident deer hunters vs. 13 bears after the permit requirement.   There are also likely more non-residents that purchase a bear permit than you would have expected (700-1,000 permits annually).

Generally, harvest by deer hunters varies from year to year based largely on food availability.  When nut/berry crops are abundant, bears enter their dens later providing greater opportunity to hunters in late fall (as late as Dec 1) and vice versa when food levels are low bears enter dens earlier (as early as October). Regardless of food levels, as you mentioned harvest by deer hunters in November will always be somewhat limited, since most bears have entered their winter den.  Since 2003, the harvest by deer hunters (residents and non-resident) has fluctuated from a low of 34 to a high of 201 based on food availability and den entry, but averages about 100 each year.

Finally, bear harvest by deer hunters has shown a declining trend since 1982 indicating it is much more complicated than a permit requirement.  That said, we are currently developing a 10-year plan for Maine’s big game species. Through this process, we will consider a variety of options for meeting our management needs that includes reviewing our permit system and making changes if appropriate. Your question of whether we could increase harvest by allowing all NR deer hunters the opportunity to harvest a bear without a permit will be one possibility that we will consider.

Happy Holidays, Jen

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website,, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.