Maine’s black bears have emerged from hibernation and are pawing through garbage cans, bird feeders and pet dishes, igniting a debate between hunters and conservationists about an upcoming referendum on the state’s bear hunt.
A November ballot question could prohibit bear hunting with bait, dogs or traps. Maine is the only state that allows all three of those hunting methods, and it’s the only state that allows recreational trapping. Baiting, which accounts for 80 percent of the state bear hunt, is by far the most popular method.
The forthcoming vote has earned the attention of conservation groups and hunting advocates around the country. It comes 10 years after Maine voters narrowly rejected a similar ballot initiative.
Meanwhile, the state has received 44 nuisance bear complaints in the four weeks since bears started emerging from hibernation, a high number for this early in the year, state officials say. Opponents of the restrictions say the encounters illustrate the need for more bear hunting, while proponents say baiting bears with human food has habituated them to human smells and lessened their instinctive fear of people.
The long, cold winter also played a role, as much of the vegetation that makes up a bear’s diet has yet to regrow, forcing them to forage in residential areas, said Mark Latti, a spokesman for the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife
“Bears are hungry. They’re looking for food,” Latti said. “They’re not finding it in the woods so they’ll look elsewhere.”
Maine typically sees about 500 nuisance bear complaints in a year, though numbers can ebb and flow. There were 311 last year and 827 the year before. Ten years ago, the average was about 400 annually, Latti said.
Meanwhile, the state’s bear population has grown to more than 30,000, a 30 percent increase from 10 years ago. And the number of bears taken by hunting has dropped from a peak of 3,951 in 2000 to 3,207 last year, Latti said.
Hunting outfitters like Chad Deabay of Oxbow Lodge in Oxbow say reducing legal hunting methods will further cut into the number of bears taken in the annual hunt, which runs from Aug. 25 to Nov. 29.
“We’re going to run into a mushroom cloud of bears,” Deabay said. “We’re going to have more encounters with nuisance bears.”
But supporters of the referendum, led by Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, point to states such as Colorado, Oregon and Washington, which restricted hunting methods for bears in the 1990s and have seen bear populations stabilize. They attribute the nuisance bear encounters to animals becoming emboldened by associating humans and baiting with the availability of easy food.
In Maine, hunters can set bear bait – typically sugary, high-calorie food such as doughnuts – four weeks before the start of the season. That’s a problem, said Katie Hansberry, the campaign’s director.
“It’s growing the population,” she said. “It’s the problem, not the solution.”
Bear attacks in Maine are rare, Latti said, citing a nonfatal attack on a Standish teenager about 10 years ago as the most recent example. But black bears can weigh more than 500 pounds and have enough strength to cause serious injury or death, he said.
Jim Remley of Winthrop is familiar with bear strength: A black bear ripped down his flagpole to get into a bird feeder in 2012. He said Maine residents should get used to living near bears.
“It’s nice to see them in the wild, for sure, and they might be getting closer to towns and cities,” Remley said.