Maine’s bear harvest has been declining at the same time the bear population has been increasing through ample natural food. But despite growing bear numbers, there’s not a problem with bears clashing with the public and becoming a disturbance, state biologists say.

At some point, however, that clash is expected and biologists will need to start considering ways to adjust the bear hunt to control a steadily growing population.

“A lot of states are at a point where they need to stabilize their bear population to a socially acceptable level. But not us. Maine’s bear population has never been low enough to close the season,” said state bear study leader Jennifer Vashon.

Maine is the only state on the Eastern seaboard where black bears have been continuously hunted without interruption since the days of the European settlers.

In fact, Vashon said it’s likely bear hunting has been a part of Maine as long as there have been black bears and hunters here.

“Three-fourths of Maine has a low human density and there are extensive areas of uninhabited forestland. You don’t see that anywhere else in the country. For that reason we are able to have a really large bear population,” Vashon said.

Maine’s bear population — estimated between 25,000 and 35,000 — is growing and has room to grow. But since it has not been this high in 60 years, Vashon says ways to control the population will soon be considered.

While the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is not rushing to lengthen the bear season, add a new kind of tag, or consider a spring season, it will do so in the next two years, she said.

The state estimated bear densities in 1985, 1990 and 1995. They will crunch the numbers again this summer. Then they’ll look at the bear hunt.

To estimate the population, biologists look at three study areas and the number of cubs that survive per litter to get an idea of the density of the population in the state. They also look at amount of forested bear habitat in that region and around the state.

Using the two numbers, one for bear density and one for habitat around the state, they calculate a population estimate, recognizing some amount of error. That’s why they use a range.

What has surprised biologists is that despite the growing bear population, there haven’t been any of the issues that are found in other states with too many bear.

“One indicator we have (of a high population) is conflicts. But they have been pretty stable for 15 years or so. You expect with a high bear population to see more complaints. But people aren’t affected. They have a really high tolerance for bears,” Vashon said.

Still, if hunter success stays low, potential conflicts will have to be considered, she said.

Ten years ago, bear hunters were harvesting a fourth more bear than they tag now. The past five years, the harvest has dropped steadily to 3,000.

Measures will need to be taken to increase that, Vashon said.

“We haven’t rushed. We’ll take our time. We want to make sure we do the appropriate thing and evaluate the tools,” Vashon said.

“In 2014, we’ll go through the planning process. We do that every 15 years. We meet with the public and review our goals. That will be 2014.”

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