This is the second of four stories outlining the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s recently unveiled big game management plan, which includes deer, bear, moose and turkeys.
Back in the 18th century, black bears created such a nuisance among settlers that they were widely reviled. In fact, in 1770 the state put its first bounty on bears, and it wasn’t until 1957 that the cash reward for killing bears was repealed for good.
But as the state unveils its latest 10-year big game management plan, one thing is clear: Maine once again has more bears than its residents would like, and state biologists need some new options if they’re going to shrink the bear herd.
“We know the population is going to a place that we don’t want it to be. There’s the possibility that increasing populations increases the pioneering of new habitat [by bears] and movement of bears into new areas where people live,” said Randy Cross, a wildlife biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the longtime crew leader of the department’s bear research project. “And once they kind of establish themselves in those places, it can be hard to move that line back. Once they’ve crossed the line, it’s probably more or less a permanent thing.”
The three stated goals of the bear management plan are:
— Maintain a healthy, sustainable bear population overall, while minimizing population growth in areas of higher human density.
— Provide opportunities for the public to safely enjoy bears.
— Increase public understanding of bear ecology, public support for bear management, and public tolerance for coexisting with bears.
In addition, the plan assigns each of the state’s Wildlife Management Districts to one of four bear “tolerance zones,” reflecting the relative expectation of those who live or recreate in the areas.
Extreme northern or western parts of the state, for instance, are considered “high tolerance zones,” both because of the high bear population and the fact that few people actually live in those areas. Moderate and low tolerance zones are closer to more populated areas, and a “no tolerance zone” has been established in coastal and southern parts of the state that are heavily populated and not very forested. Bears in areas like that would create conflicts that the public won’t accept.
Bangor, which is in WMD 26, is in a “moderate tolerance zone” for bears.
The problem, simply put: The state’s bear population continues to grow at a 2 percent to 4 percent clip every year because hunters are not removing enough bears — the goal is 3,500 or more per year — from the population. Because of that, the bear population has nearly doubled to more than 35,000 from 1985 until now.
And the state’s bear biologists are limited in what they can do without legislative approval to decrease the bear population.
“If you look at [biologists managing] deer or moose, they can make some adjustments to seasons, and they do that all the time,” said Jennifer Vashon, a bear biologist for the wildlife department. “But if you look at bear hunting, our regulations have remained essentially the same since 1990.”
Bear hunting is already done about as liberally as it can be under the current authority granted to the wildlife department by the Legislature, Cross and Vashon explained. To increase the harvest of bears by, for instance, starting the hunting season earlier in northern Maine, the Legislature would need to become involved.
“You mention a spring hunt, and increasing bag limits [as possibilities that might be explored],” Vashon said. “What might be easiest to come is extending the season earlier in northern Maine. That’s when bears are out and about, moving around. But we still can’t do that under our current regulatory authority. That requires changes.”
The state only has about 5,000 resident bear hunters a year, with another 5,000 or so nonresidents who also hunt bears. That number of hunters isn’t sufficient to cull enough bears from the herd to bring the population to the desired level.
Surveys have shown that Mainers are quite tolerant of bears, but the management plan suggests that may be because bears typically live in places where they don’t interact with humans.
And that’s a good thing, Cross said.
“Having had no first-hand experience with it, it sounds lovely to have some bears around,” Cross said. “Until they’ve got their paws on your windows, or are breaking in.”
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