During many bear seasons, wildlife biologist Randy Cross can tell what the conditions are based on the phone calls he fields from his Bangor office.
“You tend to get more calls when people are doing poorly, because they want to know what’s going on or what they can do to change it,” Cross, the field crew leader of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s long-running bear study, said. “You get fewer calls when things are going well [for the hunters].”
If hunters in the same part of the state keep calling with similar problems or questions, Cross said, it can indicate that there may be specific conditions — an abundance of natural foods, for instance — that could be contributing to the bears not heading to the hunter’s baits.
With the second full week of the four-week hunting season over bait coming to a close, this year is proving to be tough to categorize, Cross said.
This year’s bear hunting seasons in Maine are as follows: with bait, Aug. 28-Sept. 23; with dogs, Sept. 11-Oct. 27; general hunting (without bait), Aug. 28-Nov. 25; trapping: Sept. 1-Oct. 31.
“This year there’s been no consistent message, really. It’s been mixed reports, positive and negative, sometimes not far from each other,” Cross said. “Taking all of that and trying to make sense of it is very difficult.”
During most years, the hunters he hears from are typically sharing the same woes: They’re not seeing bears coming to their baits.
“You tend to get more calls when people are doing poorly, because they want to know what’s going on or what they can do to change it,” Cross said.
That hasn’t been the case this season. Some hunters are seeing bears at their baits and others aren’t. And while he may not have a magical solution to offer, Cross did take a stab at a mid-season progress report.
“It’s not a terrible [hunting] year, but it’s not a great year, either,” he said. “I think it will be a little bit better than last year.”
A year ago, hunters tagged 2,859 black bears in Maine. That total was a bit lower than normal, due in large part to an abundance of blackberries and other food sources that kept the bears from visiting baits.
“Natural foods were quite abundant through the bait season last year, which affects our harvest the most,” Cross said.
One thing working in favor of hunters this year. Cross expects bears to head to their dens later in the year, which will make many bears available to deer hunters when they head into the woods during November. That’s because the chief food crop that helps dictate whether bears will den early or late, beechnuts, is expected to be plentiful and provide ample food for bears well into November, Cross said.
Cross, who has been studying bears for more than 30 years, said he has seen bears head to their dens as early as late September.
“I call up  a lot. That was really extreme. Drought affected the natural food that year,” Cross said.
In that year, half of Cross’s female bears in the northern Maine study group retired to their dens by Sept. 20.
“So that’s what I measure all really poor years against,” he said. “We haven’t come close [to bears denning that early] since.”
During an average year, he’d expect bears to begin heading to their dens by Nov. 1.
“We’re going to have bears out [on the landscape] well into November this year,” he said.
Jennifer Vashon, a DIF&W biologist who works with Canada lynx and bears, said the department would like to see more black bears taken by hunters in order to stabilize a population that continues to grow between 2 and 4 percent annually.
Convincing Maine hunters who have ignored black bears in the past might help the department reach that goal, she said.
“We have 200,000 deer hunters, roughly, but we only have 11,000 bear hunters,” Vashon said. “What are the barriers [to those deer hunters targeting bears] and what can we do to increase that participation?”
Vashon said the department is reluctant to give an official population estimate for bears because the population is always in flux, but did give a ballpark figure.
“It’s definitely well over 30,000 [bears] and likely approaching 35,000,” she said.
Cross said he thinks there’s a common misconception that bear meat is unfit to eat among hunters that choose to hunt other species and don’t target bears. And many Mainers simply didn’t grow up eating bear meat, as they might have grown up eating venison.
“I really think if the people of the state of Maine knew how good bear meat is to eat, we would probably get a lot more hunters,” Cross said. “But there’s this common [opinion] that bears aren’t good to eat, and that’s tough to beat. I know that there’s a lot of hunters who would go after anything they think is good to eat, but there’s a lot of hunters who won’t go after bears because they believe what they heard down at the corner store: That they’re no good to eat.”