Hurricane Irene, as you’ve undoubtedly heard, is spinning her way toward land on a course that forecasters say may well bring her up the eastern seaboard all the way to the Pine Tree State.
We’re all encouraged to buy bottled water and flashlights and fill our vehicles with fuel. As of Wednesday, we have yet to be advised to dig out the duct tape and start fashioning gaudy X’s on our picture windows, but that may well happen.
This coming Monday, according to custom, hundreds of hunters will be allowed to head into the woods, and stake out spots over bait stations on the state’s opening day of bear season.
After talking to a state bear biologist on Tuesday, I’d add another item to the shopping lists of those prospective bear hunters: Buy a book, and be prepared to lay low.
Randy Cross, a biologist who serves as the field crew leader of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s ongoing bear research project, explained that if Hurricane Irene’s wrath is felt here in Maine, it would likely have a severe effect on bear activity.
“Wind is probably the biggest factor that makes a bear the most reluctant to take the risk that they sense is associated with bait provided by humans,” Cross said. “That risk makes them nervous [all the time] and that’s one of the reasons why a lot of the [bear] activity is at night or just in the dusk, when they feel more comfortable in the dark.”
Cross said strong wind takes away the bears’ primary advantage, their sense of smell.
“When they can’t smell, see or hear as well with all the motion and noise, it’s a really scary situation for them and at that point they’re a little less apt to take that chance,” Cross said.
The biologist, who will begin his 30th season of visiting bear dens this winter, said bears have decent eyesight, especially when it comes to picking out movement. And they hear just fine, too. But when it comes to sniffing out trouble, they have few peers in the Maine woods, he said.
“Their nose is so doggone good, it’s so much better than most animals that we deal with, that it stands out,” Cross said. “If they didn’t have the Michael Jordan of noses, we would recognize that their hearing is pretty good, too.”
With strong wind dispersing scents and confusing the bears, activity will drop drastically, he said. And even a couple of days of hurricane-spawned weather could have an effect that biologists will be able to track after the season ends.
“It could be critical. Most of the hunters come up for six days if they’re on a guided hunt, and if a couple of those days are wiped out by wind and rain, especially early in the week, I think it hurts the productivity of that first week,” Cross said.
Cross explained that typically, 60 to 65 percent of the bears taken in Maine each year are bagged in the first two weeks of the bait season. Cut two of the most productive days out of the first 12 — Maine doesn’t allow Sunday hunting — and the bear kill could drop.
And Cross said bear-hunting guides he has been talking to were already saying that the abundance of natural foods has put a bit of a damper on their baiting success in the weeks leading up to the season opener. Guides are allowed to bait their sites for 30 days before the season begins.
“Word on the street is that bait activity is down in a good portion of the state,” Cross said. “There’s a lot of bears out there, but I don’t think they’re going to be as active as they [usually] are, especially during the [odd-numbered] years.”
Cross said that Maine typically has a banner crop of beechnuts — prime forage for bears — only on even-numbered years. This year, however, he said the state may see its first big beechnut crop during an odd-numbered year in more than 35 years.
There is, however, one factor that could diminish the possible effect of Hurricane Irene. Because natural foods are abundant, and will likely keep bears out of their dens well into the fall, when hunters who are primarily targeting deer, as well as bear trappers, may enjoy higher-than-normal success.
Maine’s bait season runs from Monday through Sept. 24; those hunting with dogs will be afield from Sept. 12 through Oct. 28, and bear trapping season stretches from Sept. 1 through Oct. 31. General hunting without use of dogs or bait runs from Monday through Nov. 26.
Trappers from across the northeast will begin arriving in Bethel on Thursday, Aug. 25, for the 35th annual New England Trappers Weekend.
Hosted by Neal D. Olson and Olson’s Fur, the festivities run through Saturday and include a variety of activities that will be of interest to trappers and their families, including the kids.
For more information, visit bethelmaine.com.