Randy Cross has been studying black bears and their habits for more than 30 years. That’s why, when the Maine wildlife biologist gives his opinion on the bear-hunting season, it makes sense to listen closely.
And this year (unfortunately for the hunters, or fortunately for the bears), Cross thinks it’ll be tougher for hunters to fill their tags, especially early in the season, which kicked off with Youth Bear Day on Saturday.
The reason: There’s plenty of natural bear food out there, and those bears won’t be nearly as tempted to visit bait sites as they might be in other, less productive, food years.
“The relative abundance of natural foods on the landscape has the greatest influence on hunting success and physical condition of the bears,” the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist said. “More natural food results in fewer bears visiting bait sites and a lower number of bears taken over bait.”
Cross explained that cool, wet spring weather, which much of the state had this year, generally leads to an abundance of bear food. That’s true even though bears eat a varied diet and certain foods are not available in every part of Maine.
“However, I can say that overall, bait hunting will not be as productive as last year, which should result in a total harvest near 3,000,” Cross said.
The vast majority of bears — 75 percent in 2018 — are taken by hunters using bait. Another 21 percent were taken by hunters using trained dogs. A total of 87 bears (3 percent of the total harvest) were trapped. Just 12 bears were taken by opportunistic deer hunters, with another 34 shot by spot-and-stalk or still-hunting methods.
Last year there was not as much natural food on the landscape, which helps explain the low total taken during deer season. Many bears had already abandoned their foraging and headed into dens before deer season in November.
According to the DIF&W, Maine’s bear population is estimated at more than 36,000. The state allows people to take two bears per year, one by hunting and one by trapping.
The bear harvest in the past three years has amounted to 3,314 in 2018, 2,897 in 2017 and 2,859 in 2016.
The DIF&W said that even with a lengthy bear season, only about 25 percent of hunters successfully bag a bear each year. Hunters pursuing deer are less successful (about a 14-18 percent rate), while turkey hunters enjoy a 30-35 percent success rate. Last year, 76 percent of moose hunters filled their tags.
This year’s general bear hunting season runs from Aug. 26 through Nov. 30. A more specific breakdown of the methods allowed:
— Hunting over bait is allowed from Aug. 26 through Sept. 21.
— Hunting with dogs is allowed from Sept. 9 through Nov. 1.
— Trapping bears is allowed from Sept. 1 through Oct. 31.
Hunters who target bears before the firearms season on deer, which ends Nov. 30, need a special permit to do so. That permit costs $27 for Maine residents and $74 for nonresidents. Those hunters must also hold a Maine big-game hunting permit, which costs $26 for residents and $115 for nonresidents. Maine residents taking part in the firearms deer season can take a bear if they wish, without purchasing an additional bear-hunting permit. Nonresidents who want to hunt bears during the traditional deer season must purchase a late-season bear permit, which costs $40.
While bears might be harder to lure to bait, Cross said late-season hunters may benefit from the amount of natural food that’s available, delaying the bears’ timetable for seeking a den.
“The silver lining is that bears will be actively foraging much later in the season than last year since late season foods such as beechnuts and acorns will keep bears out of their dens,” Cross said. “This is good news for deer hunters that would like to harvest a bear during deer season and hunters using dogs or traps in October.”