ORONO, Maine — Paul Melanson doesn’t live in an area you’d immediately think of when you say the words “bear habitat.”
His home is on busy Stillwater Avenue about 2 miles from the University of Maine.
But when a friend went out to shoot some arrows at a target on his land on Saturday, Melanson learned that he had quite a herd of bruins sleeping just 50 yards from his front door.
“I was out shooting a little bit and one of my arrows [missed the target]” said his friend Ron Dean. “I was here, kicking around, trying to find that arrow, and I happened to notice [something] black in the tree. When I looked at it, it was a bear.”
Upon closer scrutiny by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s bear research crew, make that four bears — a mother and three hefty yearling cubs.
One of those cubs, in fact, was the largest yearling that DIF&W biologist Randy Cross has ever documented during more than 30 years studying bears. The male bear weighed in at 97 pounds.
That’s remarkable, considering that during the state’s winter survey of Down East dens a year ago, the average weight of yearlings was just 26 pounds, Cross said.
Melanson said a neighbor feeds the bears, which keeps them near his home during the summer months. He said he knew there were bears nearby, though he was shocked to find out how close the den was.
“I have seen one of the bears walking around the yard [before they entered the den for the winter],” Melanson said. “I was aware that they were there. But I didn’t think I had four of ’em.”
Cross, who was manning the DIF&W booth at the Eastern Maine Sportsmen’s Show on Sunday morning, found out about the bears on Saturday. He knew they were denned up until warmer weather, so planned a visit for Sunday afternoon, after he left the show.
Cross and his crew visited the den, sedated the bears, weighed them, fitted them with ear tags, tattooed an identification number on their inner lip, and tucked them back into the den.
The mother bear weighed 184 pounds, while a yearling female weighed 77 pounds. Two yearling males weighed 87 and 97 pounds.
The bears were all tucked into the hollowed cavity of a rotted tree. That cavity didn’t appear large enough for one bear, let alone four, but the family managed just fine.
When the crew replaced the bears — complete with some improvements to their den’s “front door” that would keep them cozy for a few more weeks — it wasn’t easy to fit them all back into their original positions.
Cross said the bears would rearrange themselves as necessary after they regained consciousness.
Cross said moving the bears from their current location wasn’t really an option.
“Moving the family would not have served much purpose unless we moved them literally 150 miles or more,” Cross wrote in an email. “They would merely return to where they know food is plentiful as soon as they got moving in a couple of weeks. This would potentially expose them to many dangerous road crossings and potentially expose homeowners on their route home to unexpected raids.”
Cross said the neighbor who has been feeding the bears have made the bears feel that interacting with people is a good way to obtain high-quality food, but he didn’t expect the bears to be aggressive when they emerge from their den.
But they might become “nuisance bears,” he added.
“They may well cause problems this summer and now they are identifiable with their ear tags,” Cross wrote. “Their ear tags will help inform us regarding future negative interactions with people in the area which will help us manage this nuisance situation.”
Earlier on Sunday, a resident on nearby Forest Avenue said he’d seen four bears — likely the same four — tromp past his house regularly before they went into hibernation. That resident said it became apparent that the bears were visiting the same house to eat food the landowner was leaving out.
Cross drew a distinction between leaving food for bears in a neighborhood setting and leaving bait for bears in rural settings during hunting season, however.
“Bears have learned to associate concentrated food sources with location,” Cross said. “A bear finds beechnuts on a ridge north of its home range, then searches other ridges north of his home range for nuts. This is why it’s important that they not find food near homes. And it’s one of the reasons why baiting bears deep in the woods does not cause bears to look for food in town.”
Cross said the discovery of this bear family so close to UMaine and on a busy road should serve as a reminder that bears don’t live in just remote forests.
“It’s a good opportunity to ask people to be careful not to feed bears at their homes by taking in bird feeders, pet food or garbage,” Cross said. “We want our bears to look for food in the woods, not in our backyards.”
Cross said the male yearling will likely move a considerable distance after he emerges from the den in order to find his own home range. A move of 10-40 miles wouldn’t be uncommon for a young male bear, he said.
For the near future, Melanson is happy to share his land with the family of bears. And after they leave, his buddy may even go back and look for the missing arrow. No, he never did find it, and his search was cut short after he spotted that black fur sticking out of a hole in the tree.
“I didn’t stick around [to look for it] at that point,” Dean said.