Randy Cross has spent the past three decades studying Maine’s black bears, and helping the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife manage the bear population. And though some think the most popular way of hunting bears in this state — over bait — tilts the playing field too far in favor of hunters, Cross says it rarely turns out that way.
“At first blush people look at [hunting over bait] and it appears to be a pretty slam-dunk way to kill an animal,” Cross said. “But in the end, we rarely have higher than a 30 percent success rate among [bait] hunters … you have to do a lot of things right, you have to have a little luck, which is always a part of hunting.”
By comparison, according to 2012 statistics, 79 percent of moose hunters, 38 percent of turkey hunters and 14 percent of deer hunters were successful that year.
Cross said a 1999 public working group set population goals for the state’s bear population, but admits achieving those goals has proven difficult. Since that time, when Maine had an estimated 23,000 bears, the population has grown to an estimated 31,000.
The biggest challenge, according to Cross, is the fact that fewer hunters are taking part in the yearly hunt.
“One of the biggest things hindering our ability to maintain a stable population is a lack of bear hunters,” Cross said. “A lot of that goes to the poor economy. It’s an uncertainty about people’s jobs and such. A bear hunt in Maine is sort of a luxury to most of the bear hunters. And it’s a pretty expensive vacation now.”
Cross said that 15 or 20 years ago, a fully guided bear hunt, including lodging and meals, might cost a hunter $1,000. Now, that price tag will be closer to $2,000. An increase in the price of fuel is chiefly to blame, the biologist says.
Getting bait to Maine is more costly; putting that bait in front of bears at far-flung bait sites also costs more. And some outfitters often lease up to 70 bait sites from landowners, at about $100 per site.
According to a DIF&W fact sheet, hunters harvested an average of 3,780 bears between 1999 and 2004. Since then, the harvest has declined 23 percent to 2,910 bears per year. That statistic dovetails nearly perfectly with the subsequent 24 percent reduction in bear hunters over the same period.
Among hunters who successfully tagged bears, the number of bears harvested via different methods has not changed since 1999, the DIF&W says.
Hunters using bait account for 79 percent of the yearly tally. Those using hounds take 11 percent per year, while “incidental” kills during deer season account for another 4 percent. Trapping (3 percent) and “method unreported” (3 percent) are also part of the total.
Maine’s general hunting season on bears (without bait or dogs) stretches from Aug. 26 through Nov. 30 this year. Bait season is from Aug. 26-Sept. 21 while hound hunting is allowed from Sept. 9-Nov. 1.
Cross said bear hunting is an important management tool for state biologists.
“One thing that’s important to know about bear management I think a lot of people don’t understand is that there is a limit to the number of bears that the land can support,” Cross said. “As the population increases, the competition for food resources increases and bears are more likely to cause conflicts with people.”