Bear hunters who head into the woods on opening day, Monday, Aug. 31, will have the odds in their favor, according to a state wildlife official, because a lack of natural food on the landscape will likely make bears more apt to visit the bait sites where hunters will be waiting.
Guides and hunters have been prebaiting their sites all month, and reports indicate that dry conditions and the natural annual fluctuation of food sources have combined to convince bears to readily approach those baits.
“We’re already hearing reports of a lot of bear activity on bait sites, we expect that it’s going to be a very productive year for hunters that are targeting bears due to the relatively low abundance of natural food,” said Nate Webb, the wildlife division director for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
In particular, hard mast crops like beechnuts and acorns typically produce bumper crops every other year, Webb said. Dry conditions haven’t helped soft mast crops like berries. And when bears don’t find as much of their preferred foods as they’d like, they’re more likely to approach baits that have been placed by humans.
Hunters can be the beneficiaries of that equation, and Webb said he has heard from plenty of guides and outfitters who are open and ready to welcome hunters. He did caution that hunters traveling from out of state should do some research to see what kind of COVID-19 precautions are required.
“Check the state of Maine website for the current information on travel requirements into Maine,” Webb said. “For those hunters that are working with a guide or hiring a guide, their guides should also have that information and should be able to help them meet the requirements that they need to follow in order to come to Maine to hunt.”
Here are a few highlights of the state’s black bear herd and hunt:
How many bears do we have?
The not-so-simple answer to that question is “more than the public has said that it wants.” Or maybe it’s “more than we had 15 years ago.”
Webb explains that the bear population has been rising by 2 to 4 percent per year for the past decade and a half, as the harvest goals haven’t been met. As a result, Maine now has about 35,000 black bears roaming the woods.
“We really rely on hunters to help us manage the bear population, and we’re hopeful that this year the combination of good hunting conditions and hopefully an increased level of participation by hunters will result in a higher bear harvest and get us a little bit closer to where we want to be in terms of the harvest levels,” Webb said.
When are the seasons?
When people say “bear season is starting,” that really ignores the fact that Maine has a number of separate bear seasons, and that individual hunters might only spend one week in the woods looking for bears.
Here’s how it works: The general hunting season runs from Aug. 31 until Nov. 28, but different techniques and tactics are allowed at different times. The season for hunting bears over bait runs from Aug. 31 until Sept. 26. Hunters using dogs can do so between Sept. 14 and Oct. 30, while trapping bears is legal from Sept. 1 to Oct. 31. And Youth Bear Day is Aug. 29.
But those hunters who hire guides or outfitters have typically purchased a six-day hunt over bait or with dogs, and they’ll be limited to those predetermined days. Bait on your own, and you can hunt for the entire four-week bait season.
Get ’em early
In a year when there’s not as much natural food available, those hunters who think they’ll try their luck during November — usually while they’re actively looking for deer — might not have any luck finding a bear.
Why? Well, their bear will be more likely to be off snoozing.
Black bears head to their dens when they are expending more energy finding food that they gain by eating it. And in a year like this, it means their winter hibernation period will be longer than it was a year ago.
“We do expect that the harvest later in the season will be lower than last year or years when natural foods are more abundant and bears stay out later to take advantage of those food sources,” Webb said. “So although we expect the overall harvest to be higher this year than in the years with more natural foods, it’ll be concentrated in the earlier part of the season.”
Webb said the DIF&W would like to see 5,000 bears taken by hunters each year, but over the past 15 years, that simply hasn’t happened.
“Our average for the past 10 to 15 years has been about 3,000 bears per year, and it fluctuates between about 2,500 and 3,500,” Webb said.
Important to note: Those harvest goals are set as a result of public input, during which Mainers let the DIF&W know how they’d like to see the species managed, and how much bear interaction they’re willing to accept.
Do I need to tag?
“This fall, it’s back to normal. In-person registration is required for all four big game species — moose, bear, deer and turkey,” Webb said. “The tagging stations are open, they are up and running. They have safety protocols in place just as they would for their other customers.”
In April, Gov. Janet Mills suspended the requirement for hunters to register, or “tag” wild turkeys they shot during the spring season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Webb said that emergency order has expired, and hunters are once again expected to register their big game animals at local outlets beginning with bear season.
Webb said the data gained by mandatory registration is vital for the DIF&W as it manages those species.
“By requiring that registration, we’re not in a position where we’re estimating what the harvest is,” he said. “We know what the harvest is.”