When it comes to hunting Maine’s black bears, each year brings a new challenge. And according to state wildlife biologists, convincing bears to visit a bucket of bait — the preferred way to hunt the animals in these parts — can be much more difficult than you might think.
But Randy Cross of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, who has been doing bear research for more than 30 years, says he thinks hunters might have an advantage during the upcoming bear season, which kicks off with Youth Bear Day on Aug. 25.
“Anybody who’s been riding the fence getting involved with bear hunting, this might be a good year to try,” Cross said Tuesday.
Cross explained that the amount of natural food on the landscape varies from year to year. On a year when there are abundant berries, bears may totally ignore the bait and leave hunters wondering what happened. In years when berries are not as prevalent, such as this year, bears are more likely to take a risk and visit bait that has been left in the woods by humans.
“On a poorer food year, it’s a lot easier [to lure in a bear] then on a food year like last year, when you could work as hard as you want and you might not get that much bait interest,” Cross said. “[A year like that] is kind of discouraging to people just starting out because they don’t know what they’re doing wrong, and in fact they might not be doing anything wrong. There’s just a lot of natural food out there, a lot of food on the landscape, and bears are not that interested in bait.”
Cross said getting a handle on whether bears are going to visit bait sites can be a difficult thing to do, even for experienced biologists.
The reason: Bears are equal-opportunity eaters.
“The thing that’s really complicated with bears is they eat most anything that’s not granite,” Cross said. “The have such a wide variety of backup plans.”
Different berries begin producing fruit at different times during the spring and summer, and bears eagerly switch to the food source that’s at its peak. In the absence of those berries, bears will eat other vegetation or even colonizing insects such as ants and bees.
Cross said bears in certain parts of the state will be more desperate than others. In Townships 24 and 25 Down East, for instance, a late frost led to a delay in the blueberry crop maturing. Bears in that neck of the woods won’t find a food source they’ve come to depend on.
“In those townships, the blueberries are so important to the bears for about a month,” Cross said. “But in most of the varying terrain [outside those townships], they don’t get enough blueberries to make a pie. It’s super-important to bears in that area, but not important at all to bears [that don’t live as close to the blueberry barrens].”
Looking at other trends, the fact that last year was a solid year for beechnuts in the Maine woods tells Cross that food source won’t be readily available this year — beechnuts are abundant every other year.
And the absence of that late-season food source will likely mean bears will act accordingly and stop foraging earlier than they did a year ago.
“I think it may be an early den year, and that affects the late-season harvest [of bears by hunters] negatively,” Cross said.
That lower harvest during the firearms season on deer, during which hunters are allowed to shoot bears, isn’t particularly worrisome, though. It’s a good season to take up bear hunting, after all.
“By and large, across the state, we expect a lot of bait interest [by bears],” Cross said. “On those good food years, a lot of bears will go right by those baits, or maybe just feed at night. But I expect the bait harvest will be noticeably higher [than last year].”
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