As offices go, Randy Cross’s Bangor workspace perfectly fits the man who works there: It’s dark. It’s underground. It’s just the kind of place you might expect to find a bear … or the wildlife biologist who supervises the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife’s field research on bruins.
On Monday, I found Cross hunkered down in his den … office … and we spent some time chatting about the state’s approaching bear season.
The state’s bear guides began baiting about two weeks ago, and the season for hunting bears over bait runs from Aug. 31 until Sept. 26. Hunters can use dogs from Sept. 14-Oct. 30, and general hunting without dogs or bait is allowed from Aug. 31-Nov. 28.
“So far I’m hearing a pretty good prognosis [for bait hunters], both from northern Maine and eastern Maine,” Cross said. “Raspberries are not in that great a shape, so that’s really going to help the baiters a lot over most of Maine.”
Cross explained that in years when berry or beechnut crops are abundant, bears eat plenty of those preferred foods rather than visit bait sites that smell like humans.
In other years — like this one — the presence of fewer bears makes hungry bears more likely to risk interaction with humans and to sample the bait.
Cross said some Down East areas with sandy soil seem to have a good crop of bristly sarsaparilla — a blackish clump of fruit that many guides call “bear berries” — but in other parts of the state, a lack of natural food like raspberries and blackberries will be apparent.
Add in less-than-banner beechnut crop, and Cross expects the bears to be feeding early in preparation for their winter hibernation.
“I really think, over most of the state, it’s going to be an early den year,” Cross said, explaining that in years when there’s an abundance of food that bears can expect to eat well into the fall, they’ll often delay heading to their winter dens.
“Somehow, the bears know the nuts are there or the late-fall foods are there,” Cross said.
In years like this, however, bears will run out of dependable food sources earlier and den up sooner.
“Once it costs more energy to procure food than [they’re] taking in with that food, for a period of time, it makes sense physiologically to shut down the body the way bears are able to do and just lower their energy needs [by heading to the den],” Cross said.
Cross said that beginning in early August —when raspberries mature — Maine’s black bears typically begin to increase their daily calorie load. Then, as the month progresses, they get even more serious about their eating.
“It always accelerates from early August until the [hunting] season starts [on the last Monday of the month], in terms of how many calories they’re taking in,” Cross said.
The biologist said that in some years, females — the first to den up — may head to their dens as soon as early October. Late October is more typical of an “early den year.”
In “late den years,” even females may forage into November, and sometimes into December, Cross said.
Hunters will likely see the evidence of an early den year, Cross said.
If those bears are indeed going to head to dens in October, they’ll soon begin trying to pack on as much weight as possible, and will look like it.
Last year, a late den year, bear hunters were seeing plenty of skinny bears early in the season, as they had plenty of foraging time left. This year things might be different, with hunters finding bigger young bears that are already working hard to find food.
“On the early den years, they’re already laying a layer of fat on [by the time hunting season begins],” Cross said.
Calling all bear hunters
If you’re taking part in this year’s Maine bear hunt, Randy Cross and the state’s bear research team are looking for your help.
Cross followed up our Monday conversation with an e-mail explaining that the DIF&W is continuing a study it started a year ago, and is looking for tooth samples from hunter-killed bears.
By looking at teeth the biologists can find out how old each bear was, and use that data to help refine its management effort.
“Last year was the first year since 1984 that we did this and [we] got 1,039 teeth from the harvest (from 38 percent of the animals that were tagged),” Cross wrote.
“After a few years of this we should be able to track trends in the bear population and provide a minimum population estimate thanks to new programs for analyzing this data recently developed,” Cross wrote. “This will allow us to look at areas outside of our study areas and possibly divide the state up into regions (if we get a good enough sample).”
Biologists will begin working with the data that last year’s tooth sampling produced in the near future, Cross wrote.
“The teeth from last year are now at a lab in Montana being processed and we should have the ages [of the bears] within a couple months,” Cross wrote. “We plan to post those ages so that hunters who cooperated last fall will be able to see how old their bear was.”