As what could be the final bear hunting with bait season comes to a close Saturday, representatives at tagging stations across the state say that it’s been a solid four-week hunt and they’ve seen some large bears.

The general bear hunting season began on Aug. 25 and continues until Nov. 29; however, bait can only be used through Sept. 20. Hunting with dogs and trapping is permitted through Oct. 31. After that, only still-hunting is permitted through the end of the season.

“It was decent toward the beginning of the hunt but kind of tapered off,” said Ben Rioux, who works at Quigley Outdoors in Fort Kent. “We tagged more bears this year than we did last year, but there are so many other tagging stations around.”

Quigley’s total as of Thursday was 34 bears. Rioux said one bear topped 400 pounds, while several weighed more than 300.

This year marks the first that the store has existed as a stand-alone entity. In past years, the outdoors “store” was a small area in Quigley Building Supply, which is across the street from the new location.

And he said the presence of bear hunters in northernmost Maine has been a boon for his store.

“I would say 90 percent of the sales we’ve done over the past three weeks have been bear hunters,” Rioux said. “Either out-of-state bear hunters or guides stopping in to buy something. It’s an absolutely huge economic impact. It will be one of the best months, if not the best month we’ve had at this location [which opened in January].”

All that could change next year, though, due to the upcoming bear referendum. Question 1 on November’s ballot asks voters whether to ban the use of bait, dogs and traps in bear hunting in Maine.

Proponents of the referendum call the practices inhumane, while those who oppose it — including the DIF&W — say that the methods of hunting are necessary to control Maine’s bear population. Ultimately, voters will decide if Maine will see another bear baiting season — or if this season is the last.

In the meantime, bear hunters are having a good season.

Out at Amherst General Store, a representative who answered the phone said the store had tagged 34 bears as of Thursday. And while that’s well below the high-water mark of 103 bears set in 2004, it’s still a solid year, with bear hunting continuing — using other methods — until the end of November.

In 2010, for instance, Amherst General tagged 34 bears through the end of November; in 2011, the total was 30 bears.

Wildlife biologist Randy Cross, the field crew leader of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s long-term bear research project, said he expected that many other tagging stations likely saw similar results to those in Fort Kent: a quick start to the season with dwindling results late.

“The frenzied feeding period [hyperphagia] was earlier this year, which provided lots of action during the first two weeks of the bait season,” Cross said. “During this period, bears feed voraciously around the clock on natural foods with increased visitation to bait sites as well.”

Cross said when that hyperphagia period coincides with the start of bait season, it plays a key role in the state’s black bear management effort.

“This typically bodes well for the overall harvest numbers because so much of our hunting effort is concentrated in the first two weeks,” Cross said.

However, not everyone is seeing the same strong start to bear hunting season. Dave Hanson of Old Town Trading Post has had a bit of a down year, but said his store was closed for the first week of the season.

“Tagging is low, but I see it improving,” he said, reporting that he’d only tagged eight or nine bears as of Tuesday. “Two years ago, we tagged 60 or 70 for the season.”

Craig Watt of Indian Hill Trading Post in Greenville reported that he has had a busy year tagging bears — and may even have tagged a record-setting bear.

“We are currently at 51 bears tagged,” he said on Thursday. “That is up somewhat from this time last year. Hunters are seeing lots of bear and the success rate is very good.

The biggest bears tagged at Indian Hill were a 483-pound male, and a 353-pound female that Watt says may become the new state record.

Cross said he hasn’t heard of many bears weighing more than 500 pounds being taken, but said he has heard of many topping 300 pounds being tagged.

One of those: A male that had been captured and tagged previously, and was known to DIF&W biologists. That 31½ -year-old bear was taken in Allagash.

Cross said he has heard reports of the frenzied feeding period dropping off substantially, which means bears are preparing to head to their dens for winter.

But there are exceptions.

“Some areas of the state have a good mountain ash berry crop which might help in holding some bears out a little longer,” Cross said. “The bears typically wait for a hard frost [which] starts converting the sugars in these berries.”

Pregnant females tend to den first, while sub-adult males are generally the last to head to their dens.

“As I predicted before the season, early den entry decreases the chances for late-season [hunting] opportunities,” Cross said. “Despite almost 180,000 deer hunters [who are also allowed to target bears], we would expect very few bears to be taken during deer season — probably well under 100.”

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