Randy Cross has spent much of his working life around bears. He has hauled them — tranquilized, if they’re big enough — out of their dens. He has fitted them with radio collars, tattooed identifying numbers on their inner lips, and tucked them back in their cozy winter quarters.
Still, the longtime Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist, who oversees the field crew during its ongoing bear research, says that all those experiences don’t make any difference when he sits in a blind and hunts the elusive ghosts of the woods.
“It’s like there’s something very primal that’s tapped into,” Cross said. “I put my hands on a lot of bears, and to see a free-ranging bear walking close to me shouldn’t be that big of a thrill to me. I should be getting bored of that. I’ve been doing it for 30 years.”
Except, for Cross, not to mention thousands of other less-experienced bear hunters, close encounters with those free-ranging bears is nothing but routine.
“The amount of adrenaline that goes through my veins is not under my control when I’m out hunting,” Cross said. “It’s really hard to explain to people who don’t hunt … there is a thrill there, and it’s a basic instinct, I think.”
And though some Mainers argue against either the bear-hunting tactics that are used here — baiting, trapping and hounds are all lawfully utilized at time — biologists say that culling bears from the population each year is an essential part of a management directive that they did not set.
“As a department, we don’t choose a target of how many bears we want in the state,” Cross pointed out. Instead, public working groups of various interested parties — some pro-hunting, others against the practice — to determine an optimum number of bears.
“Once that’s been sort of decided, or they come to some sort of agreement, [biologists are] trained to accomplish that population goal set by that public working group,” Cross said.
Cross said that population goal is always less than the state could hold, if every single habitable space had bears in it. That’s because the public wouldn’t stand for such a high number of bears.
“If you have enough of a nuisance problem, there is a limit to how much the public is willing to tolerate,” Cross said. “Somewhere below [the maximum biological holding capacity], we come to a figure, and in order to stay at that figure, it does require some rate of harvest. For us right now, it’s about 3,000 [bears harvested per year], probably a little bit more than that, to stabilize the population.”
Cross said hunters didn’t reach that goal in 2011, and that the bear population has increased slightly each year for the past five or six years. He said he and other biologists estimate the state’s bear population at about 30,000. That’s the highest level since the state started trying to estimate the bear population, he said, and much higher than the level that existed when land-clearing farmers saw the bears as a threat to their very existence in the late 1800s.
The largest black bear taken by a hunter in Maine weighed 680 pounds, and many others heavier than 400 pounds have been taken. Females tend to live longer than males, primarily because hunters try to avoid shooting a sow with cubs, and sows have cubs every other year beginning when they’re 4 or 5 years old.
Cross said the oldest bear that has been fitted with a radio collar and monitored by the DIF&W died just short of her 31st birthday.
Cross estimated that in a busy year of hunting, about 3,000 bears are harvested when hunters use bait to lure them close to a blind or stand. In addition, about 350 bears per year are taken by hunters with hounds. In recent years, about 75 more bears are taken by trappers.
And during deer season, opportunistic hunters are also allowed to shoot bears. Cross said that number peaked at 500-600 bears in a year, but in recent years peaks at about 150.
“Last year’s [overall] harvest was low, maybe the lowest harvest we’ve seen in several years now, somewhere close to 2,400 bears,” Cross said. “That alone could mean that … the hunters fell about 1,000 bears short of the number of cubs entering the population.”
One of the reasons that the harvest was so low: Natural foods were abundant, which led to bears being less susceptible to being baited. Cross said some of those food sources can’t produce high-yield crops in consecutive years, which would lead to them denning — and preparing themselves for hibernation by gorging themselves — earlier. That could work to hunters’ advantages.
“That puts the bait hunt right in the center of their increased [feeding], their almost crazy feeding schedules,” Cross said. “
And for hunters, that would be a welcome change from a year ago.