TOWNSHIP 36 MD, Maine — When Randy Cross last saw “Big John,” the 7-year-old 364-pound black bear was snoozing beside a tree in remote Washington County, shaking off the effects of the sedative that was administered an hour earlier.
That was four years ago, when Cross, a wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, was showing a pair of BDN staffers how the state’s ongoing bear research study operates.
Big John was the catch of the day on June 14, 2010, a prime specimen of bearhood, according to the longtime biologist. After fitting the bear with ear tags and a lip tattoo — and after naming him after the writer who’d be telling the tale — we all skulked off.
For four years, Cross waited to hear more about “Big John,” knowing the bear might be taken by hunters each fall and knowing staffers at tagging stations would let him know if it were to happen.
It never did.
On Tuesday, in that same patch of woods, Cross approached the cable foot-restraint device his crew had set and got a big surprise.
Big John had returned.
“I’ve told many people about Big John, especially how he was so big for his age when we saw him in 2010,” Cross said in an email. “[I] caught him yesterday on a tree just 20 feet from where you and I last saw him. He is now 11 years old with some room for additional skeletal growth over the next few years.”
And his weight now — a healthy 432 pounds.
Cross included photos but said no matter how big he looks now, Big John is even more immense when you’re standing beside him.
“I think you have to be there to fully appreciate the power that a bear this size exudes,” Cross wrote.
And he should know: Cross has wrestled with plenty of bears during his 32 years studying them for the department, and he bears the scars to prove it. A few years back, he tore his Achilles tendon while chasing a bear during a spring snaring session. The incident was memorialized by a “North Woods Law” camera crew, though a delicate editing job put the focus on the bears, not the hobbled Cross.
Cross said he was a bit surprised Big John was caught at the same site he last appeared and said bears his size have plenty of options available to them.
“A bear this size covers a tremendous amount of area. He goes where he wants, being bigger than almost every other bear out there. Nobody pushes him around,” he said. “This time of year, prime-age males like this travel constantly in search of females in estrus while losing weight the entire time.”
Cross said he wouldn’t have been surprised to catch the bear 50 miles away from the site where he first saw it.
And because of that, Cross said hunters who hear about “Big John” and think they’ll set up bait sites in Township 36 to try to lure him in this fall will likely fail.
“Scouring the woods in that township looking for a particular bear like this may be no more productive than looking for him many miles away,” Cross said. “We know that at least twice in the last five years he was in that area during breeding season, which isn’t much knowledge of his travels at all.”
The biologist said he suspects Big John was in the area conducting some old-fashioned courting.
“This trap site is on the eastern edge of our trapping grid and is in good habitat, but I think that he became very interested in the collared female that has been visiting that site fairly regularly for the previous 10 days or so,” Cross said. “My suspicion is that he has rejoined her now and will stay with her for a few days before moving on.”
Big John, Cross said, is likely a very … active … bear.
“I also suspect that he was fairly recently far away, courting other females before, and will soon be off wandering again through the end of the breeding season before settling down (somewhat) for the fall feeding and fattening period before entering his den,” Cross said.
After four years of wondering about the bear, Cross said he was thrilled to find Big John, though he admits he wasn’t sure it was the same bear at first.
“As we marveled at [the bear’s size], I kept saying to myself (and occasionally out loud) that this must be Big John, and I couldn’t wait to get back to my computer to see if it was true,” he said.
After learning the bear was trapped on June 14, 2010, and remembering another reason he named the bear “Big John,” Cross enlisted some high-tech help.
“I asked one of the [young crew members] to find out who sang the song by that name on their smart phone, because it was playing on the radio that morning,” Cross said. “Jimmy Dean passed away on June 13, 2010, so I knew for sure that [the bear] was Big John himself.”
In a subsequent email, Cross clarified that comment.
“Of course, you know I named this bear after you … not the song,” Cross wrote. “It just happened that way.”