Maine has a growing black bear population, and it has a human population with a heightened interest in how the state manages them.
Last year, an unsuccessful ballot question that sought to ban bear baiting, hounding and trapping brought Maine’s most common bear hunting methods into focus. This year, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is starting work on a new 15-year management plan for the state’s big game species, including the black bear.
In broad strokes, the plan will establish the state’s population objectives for each of the four big-game species — moose, deer, turkeys and bears — and the approach it will use to manage them. The planning process is also DIF&W’s chance to gauge public opinion on these big game species and the methods hunters can use to bag them.
With bears specifically, this round of management planning is the agency’s opportunity to reach a consensus, which could be key to preventing another referendum battle over bear hunting methods that have gone before voters twice in the past 11 years.
The Humane Society of the United States, the organization that forced last year’s ballot initiative, won’t attempt to place a measure on the 2016 ballot to ban bear hounding and trapping, according to Katie Hansberry, the organization’s Maine director. But the group still has its eye on banning those practices.
“We’re going to give it some time and see if we can make some progress on hounding and trapping via the legislative and/or regulatory process,” she wrote in an email.
This year, one encouraging element of DIF&W’s approach to big game management planning is its commitment to collecting detailed public opinion on a variety of big game management issues. The department has retained a Virginia firm that specializes in gauging public attitudes on fish and wildlife issues.
“The questions will run the gamut from, what’s your perspective on the current population size of bears in the state, right to opinions on management methods,” Nate Webb, special projects biologist for DIF&W, said.
Maine’s black bear population is growing. Fifteen years ago, the last time DIF&W assembled a bear management plan, the plan sought to maintain the population at about 23,000. Today, the department estimates it’s greater than 30,000. That means if the consensus of Maine residents surveyed by the department is to eliminate bear hounding and trapping, the state will need other strategies to keep a growing bear population in check.
“Our goal is to be responsive to what the public wants and incorporate that into the management of each species to the extent that we can,” Webb said.
The department can’t ban hunting practices through the planning process alone. But the management plan, which DIF&W aims to complete next spring, can serve as the basis for legislative changes and changes to department rules. And, Webb said, DIF&W plans to make public the data it collects from its comprehensive survey on wildlife management.
Perhaps the data will show the public supports eliminating the use of hounds and traps in bear hunting. If so, that should give members of the Legislature the cover they need to eliminate those practices once and for all — and to prevent future referendum fights on the topic. At the same time, and although trapping and hounding generally account for fewer than 20 percent of the bears killed by hunters each year, Maine’s wildlife managers may have to consider other measures to make up for fewer available bear hunting options. Those could involve the addition of a spring hunting season, a higher bag limit (hunters currently can kill no more than two bears per year) or lower license fees to entice more hunters to participate.
Last year’s Question 1 failed at the polls, but the vote was close, and there’s reason to think the initiative would have been successful if it targeted only bear trapping and hounding. The management planning process DIF&W is undertaking is the public’s chance to weigh in again on bear hunting in a more constructive and detailed way and for the state’s wildlife managers to take into account what they hear.