A black bear walks across the ground in Lyme, New Hampshire, Aug. 1, 2007. A Maine legislative committee decided in late May 2019 that proposals to overhaul the state's bear hunting rules will have to wait until the next legislative session in January. The bear population of Maine has grown from about 23,000 in 2004 to more than 35,000 in 2019, the largest bear population on the East Coast. Credit: Cheryl Senter | AP

The state with the largest population of black bears on the East Coast is putting off a plan to study how the consumption of human food affects the animals.

Maine is home to more than 35,000 bears, and the population has been growing quickly over the past 15 years. The state issued a request for proposals earlier this year looking for a contractor to evaluate the role human food might have played in the growth of the population.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife has decided to cancel the request, state documents show, but is likely to revisit it in the future, said Wally Jakubas, a scientist with the department.

The bears’ consumption of human food is a big subject among hunters and conservationists in Maine because most bear hunters use human food, including granola and trail mixes, as bait for the animals.

[Maine’s wildlife biologists want to shrink the bear herd, but they’ll face some challenges]

The state’s request for proposal stated that because “most black bears in Maine are harvested with the use of bait, the question of whether anthropogenic foods contribute to the growth rate of the bear population has been raised.”

The state has backed off the study for now because it needs to re-evaluate its methods and make sure there is a practical way to conduct the study, Jakubas said.

The department is also experiencing personnel changes, and the timing of the study isn’t great, he said. Another challenge of the study is how to find out what biological impact consuming bait has on bears, Jakubas said.

“This is a good time to put aside, reevaluate and get some opinions from some other scientists,” he said. “We’re still going to make this a priority. … What we’re trying to do is minimize its growth rate so the bear population doesn’t become a real nuisance problem.”

The growth of the bear population in Maine has caused state wildlife managers to consider overhauling the state’s hunting rules. State legislators considered a change offered by a pro-hunting group this year that would have given state biologists the ability to adjust the length of the season and the number of animals a hunter can kill but decided to put off the changes until at least next year.

Meanwhile, animal welfare advocates have made the case that hunting over bait has encouraged the growth of the bear population by providing bears with free, fattening food. Bear hunts are often unsuccessful, even over bait, leaving the animals with a free meal. Jakubas said bait likely doesn’t constitute enough of the bears’ diet to play that much of a role.

[Timeline: How Maine’s bear management policy has evolved over time]

Karen Coker, who heads a wildlife advocacy group called WildWatch Maine, said hunters shouldn’t be “subsidizing their diet if you want to control the population” of bears.

Limiting bear-human interactions can be an issue for all three northern New England states, all of which manage the population with hunting. Still, nuisance bear encounters happen every year.

In New Hampshire, state Department of Fish and Game officers had to euthanize a bear after it got into a Jackson home on Saturday. Vermont game wardens have destroyed two bears in recent weeks.

The Maine bear hunt begins on Aug. 26 this year. Hunters were allowed to start laying bait on July 27.

Associated Press writer Kathy McCormack contributed to this report.

Related: Maine wildlife biologists check on black bear and her cubs