Over the past several weeks, this column has been taking a 10-year look back. While a decade ago was a pivotal period for turkey and deer management in Maine, that was not the case for bears. Ten years ago, the state was in the calm trough between two strong waves of anti-bear hunting sentiment, about midway between bear hunting ballot initiatives intending to end traditional hunting methods.

Have we learned anything from that history?

The first, which appeared on the November 2004 ballot, would have prohibited bear hunting with bait, traps or dogs. Financial support came largely from out-of-state anti-hunting groups like the Humane Society of the United States and the Fund for Animals. Opposition funding was mostly from local grass-roots efforts by groups like the Sportsman Alliance of Maine (SAM), the Maine Professional Guides Association, Maine Trappers Association and others, groups that eventually united as the Maine Fish & Wildlife Conservation Council.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW) tried to remain relatively neutral – not so easy as they’re mandated by law to educate the public on sound wildlife management policies and practices.

When they weighed in on the debate, arguing that the then-current hunting framework was necessary to achieve population management goals, referendum supporters criticized them for partiality and impropriety.

The referendum notwithstanding, 2004 was a pivotal time for bear management.

For several years, the number of bears killed annually by hunters had been nudging its way up to what biologists then thought were maximum sustainable levels. Biologists feared hunters might be harvesting too many bears for the population to be able to sustain itself. But further analysis of the age of the bears at the time they were shot revealed that not only was the bear population withstanding the current level of hunting pressure, but the number of bears in Maine was actually growing. So was the level of nuisance complaints and incidents of negative bear-human interactions. Maine’s IFW biologists and wildlife managers had nearly lost the ability to effectively control the state’s bear population – when the ballot initiative was narrowly defeated.

A period of quiescence followed as biologists and bear hunters went about their business as usual. Not much changed except for the financial impact of bear hunting. As deer numbers dwindled, and in some cases crashed in northern and eastern Maine after two severe winters (2008 and 2009), guides, outfitters and the entire infrastructure of many economically depressed areas that depend on the money brought in by out-of-state hunters turned to bear hunting to sustain their business until the deer herd (hopefully) recovered.

The calm lasted just five years. The next referendum came along in 2014, and similar parties to the debate trod the same ground as before, ultimately with similar results. Biologists have contended all along that retaining traditional hunting methods is necessary to keep the state’s bear population at the optimal levels outlined in the state’s 15-year bear management plan. But as they collected the data to support their claim, biologists realized hunters had actually failed to accomplish the plan’s objectives. The bear population was still growing.

Meanwhile, another issue surfaced that, intentionally or not, was largely ignored: the impact of bears on deer. Studies from other northeastern states have shown bear predation on deer, particularly fawns, can be significant. Apply that possibility to Maine, where the highest bear populations coincide with the lowest deer populations, and you could have a serious problem. Then add coyote predation and you have the perfect recipe for what biologists call a predator pit, where, in this instance, so many fawns are eaten by bears that the deer, the prey population, cannot increase.

That brings us to the present. The current framework of hunting regulations and seasons is not accomplishing its objectives.

The bear population is rapidly approaching – and in some areas may have already reached – an intolerable level, which could lead to more dangerous human-bear encounters. The state’s wildlife agency is exploring several options to stabilize the bear population by increasing the total number of bears that hunters may kill.

As history has shown, the agency needs to proceed carefully, choosing means and methods that the general public will accept, and at the same time maintaining a bear population large enough to support the communities that rely heavily on out-of-state hunter dollars.

This should be an interesting year for bear management.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer, registered Maine guide and certified wildlife biologist who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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