On Monday afternoon hundreds of hunters will head to their stands on the opening day of bear season. Many will successfully fill their tags. Others — 70 percent of hunters, on average — will end the season without a bear.
One thing is certain: Those hunters will have a tough task in front of them if they hope to repeat the successes of 2012, during which several massive black bears were taken around the state.
“Typically with bear hunting we have strong bait years and weak bait-hunting years,” explained wildlife biologist Randy Cross of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “Last year was a very good year. The year before was very poor. We think this year is going to be poor again.”
Cross said it’s not that hard to determine whether a particular year is going to be good for bear hunting over bait. It all comes down to how desperate for a meal the bears get.
“Weather has a minor role as well [but] the number one overriding factor is the availability and abundance of natural food,” Cross said. “It’s related a lot to precipitation and we’ve had a cool, wet spring followed by a relatively damp summer. That usually bodes well for berry crops. And it also looks like we might have some beechnuts this fall.”
Cross said when bears have abundant natural foods nearby, they’re most likely to feed on those sources during daylight hours, when he says they’re aware of human presence — baiters or hunters — in the woods. After dark, those bears may sneak into bait sites to steal a few more valuable calories.
“There’s an inherent risk that they recognize. To overcome that fear of human activity and the risk that they sense that is there, they need to have a greater urgency to want to have the calories that are provided there to want to take that chance [and visit a human-produced bait site],” Cross said. “If they have some unlimited berry crops that they can forage on, they don’t need to take that chance, or they might forgo showing up by daylight and show up after dark, which makes them perfectly safe [because bear hunting doesn't take place at night].”
A year ago, bears did not have an abundance of natural foods, and they visited baits regularly. Because food was scarce, bears tried to feed voraciously early in the baiting season, preparing to head into their dens early. As a result, those bears put on a lot of weight earlier in the year than they might have, and Maine hunters benefited, bagging several bruins that weighed more than 500 pounds.
Among the big bears taken in 2012:
- A 520-pounder shot by Jeff Hilton of Charleston.
- A 522-pounder shot by Ben Cottrell of Middle Grove, N.Y., in New Canada.
- A bear that weighed an estimated 600 pounds, shot by Richard Paro of Monrovia, Ind., in Township 39.
- A state-record 699-pounder taken by Matt Knox of Pennsylvania in Greenville Junction.
The state’s general bear season (without bait or hounds) stretches from Aug. 26 through Nov. 30. Hunters are allowed to hunt over bait from Aug. 26 through Sept. 21. The use of dogs is allowed from Sept. 9 through Nov. 1, while trappers can take a bear from Sept. 1 through Oct. 31.
Maine’s bear population is estimated at 31,000, according to Cross, and has grown from 23,000 over the last eight years.
That’s a concern for biologists, who have been tasked by a public working group to keep the state’s bear population at 2005 levels.
“One of the things hindering our ability to maintain a stable population is lack of bear hunters,” Cross said, explaining that rising fuel costs have increased the price of guided bear hunts from about $1,000 20 years ago to $2,000 today.