When it comes to managing wildlife, one of the biggest challenges is to determine population numbers. Counting bears is one of these challenges.
What we know is that Maine has one of the largest black bear populations in the lower 48. In 1999, it was estimated that Maine had 23,000 bears. Our state wildlife managers are working to develop data and indices that will result in a more precise, quantifiable year-to-year bear census. In this effort to get a more accurate head count, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIF&W) has been conducting a three-year study of bear-tooth data, which reveals population trends. Wildlife managers are also conducting GPS studies of bear densities in specific study areas.
How many bears are there today in the Pine Tree State?
Concerned with black bear predation of young deer, the Deer Predation Advisory group put this question to the bear biologists. The figure that the group was given to work with by the bear biologists was, again, just an estimate: 24,000 to 36,000. That’s quite a variable — 12,000 bears, give or take. So obviously, the Maine bear census remains a “work in progress.”
In good hunting years, bear hunters take about 10 percent of the bear population. Conventional wisdom holds that a 10 percent bear harvest allows our bear numbers to remain stable. Then, of course, there are variables within the variables: these include the number of bear hunters in any given fall and the harvest success rates of these hunters, which in turn are in large measure tied to the natural foods available in the woods for the voracious bears. (Less natural forage means more bears visiting hunters’ bait sites.)
For example, according to bear biologist Randy Cross, less bear were taken out of the population by hunters last fall than during a nominal hunt year. Plenty of natural food meant fewer bears coming to bait sites last fall. Additionally, there has been a downturn of hunters in Maine over the past few years. For these reasons, and, perhaps, some others yet to be discerned, Maine has seen a modest increase in bear numbers during the past seven years, says Cross. Although bear numbers can really vary from township to township, Cross says that, typically, today there will be 62 bears in a township that 10 years only had 46.
With Maine’s bear population clearly trending upward while Maine’s nonresident hunters numbers are trending clearly downward, isn’t it time to revisit the ever-controversial spring bear hunt? Two good reasons come to mind: 1) A spring bear hunt might bring in enough additional hunters to help stabilize our bear population, and 2) less bear preying on spring fawn deer can help mitigate our deer population problems.
The recent report from the study group on our declining sale of nonresident hunting licenses asserts that we need to determine how “strategic investments can be made to increase targeted participation.” Put simply, how can we get more hunters to come to Maine.
Spring bear hunts are big in our neighboring provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick. Maine wildlife policymakers, legislators, and many professional bear guides, have long feared the public relations peril that see in bringing back spring bear hunts.
Sometimes progress does not always rest on the path of least resistance. In so many areas of wildlife management in Maine, whether it is coyote control, deer recovery, or hunting regulations, bureaucratic timidity and fear of political push-back from animal rights groups have been allowed to overrule science and common sense.
In fact, Maine already has a spring bear hunt being conducted by native Americans on state tribal lands. Maine’s new governor and fish and wildlife commissioner have, so far, shown themselves to be far more willing than their predecessors to be more concerned with results than with their image.
More than ever, a spring bear hunt seems to make good sense scientifically and economically!
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WQVM-FM 101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected] and his new book is “A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook.”