Maine’s bear hunters were hoping to bag big wins in the legislature this year, but their proposals for an overhaul of the state’s hunting rules will have to wait.

State legislators considered a change offered by a pro-hunting group that would have allowed state biologists to adjust the length of the season and the number of animals a hunter can kill.

Hunters hoped that would mean more opportunities to hunt bears, but a legislative committee decided in late May to hold the proposal over until the next session in January. Lawmakers will have another crack at the law then, said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which authored the proposal.

The bear population of Maine has grown from about 23,000 in 2004 to more than 35,000 today, and it’s the largest population on the East Coast. “We have a growing bear population that we are not controlling,” Trahan said.

The bears are the source of hundreds of complaint calls every year when they paw through garbage, raid birdfeeders and steal pet food. But many residents passionately oppose attempts to expand the state’s bear hunt.

Maine’s traditional bear hunt takes place in the fall. Another proposal this year would have taken on population growth by creating a second, spring bear hunt, but it failed to win approval from the same legislative committee and is unlikely to move forward soon.

Animal welfare groups pushed back at both pro-hunting proposals during public hearings this year. The groups have long criticized the state for allowing the use of bait to hunt bears.

Karen Coker, who heads a wildlife advocacy group called WildWatch Maine, said she believes the use of bait is inhumane. She said pro-wildlife groups will continue to oppose hunting expansion during the next session.

“This is not the time to give the commissioner the power to extend the baiting season,” she said during testimony. “It is the time for accountability.”

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