By Al Raychard
Black bear numbers are on the rise in the eastern half of the United States, and that is no more evident than in Maine. In 1979, Maine’s bear population was estimated at between 6,000 and 7,000 animals, the lowest statewide estimate in modern times. At the time, it was believed too many mature sows and sows with cubs too young to fend for themselves were being removed from the population. To curb the decline, the spring bear season was done away with starting in 1980 and the hunting season was shortened in 1990. Using improved data gathering procedures on bear densities, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife put the statewide population at 18,000 in 1984 and as high as 21,000 in 1986.
Over the years Maine’s bear population has experienced ups and downs but has steadily increased to some 36,000 today, perhaps the largest black bear population in the Lower 48, certainly the largest in the eastern half of the country and well above the desired management goal of 23,000- to 25,000. While the sparsely populated northern, western and eastern regions of the state are home to the highest bear densities, as they have always been, anecdotal evidence has shown an increase in bear numbers in central and southern regions, by far home to the largest percentage of the state’s 1.3 million human population. As a consequence, as they have in other jurisdictions, the number of bear complaints has increased considerably, running 300- to 1,000 annually in recent years.
Since 1995, Maine has seen increased recruitment of more cubs into the population, more cubs surviving to independence, a slight increase in productively among females and overall healthier yearling, all largely due to habitat improvement. Due to these factors, Maine’s bear population is growing by an estimated 2- to 4-percent annually. In other words, more bears are coming into the population than are being taken out.
Another reason for the population increase seems to be lower hunter participation. Whether due to affordable spring hunt options in neighboring New Brunswick and Quebec and the reopening of the spring season in Ontario, an increase in license fees that were initiated a few years ago, a younger hunting population less interested in hunting bears and older population no longer in the game, or any combination of the above, the fact remains that there are fewer hunters. Despite an abundance of bears, a long thirteen week hunting season that permits baiting, hounding and trapping, the only state in the country allowing all three as well as still hunting over natural foods, and plenty of guides and hunting camps offering services, the number of bear hunters is decreasing. Between 1990 and 2005 an average 12,650 resident and non-resident bear hunting permits were sold annually in Maine but that number dropped to an average 9,700 between 2006 and 2014. In 2017 the total was 8,898.
As a result, annual bear harvest totals are also down. During the 2018 bear season, hunters removed a preliminary 3,300 bears from the population, the best season in eight years, yet still well below the number needed to reach and maintain desired management levels, about 15-percent of the population. That’s about 4,000-to 4,500 bears annually. Since 2006 the annual harvest has topped the 3,000 mark just six times while at least 1,000 bears were added and continue to be added to the population each spring.
To address the situation, several initiatives and regulation changes have been proposed and are under consideration at the legislative level to get things under some control. Many hunters hope to see a reinstatement of the spring season. A proposal to do just that was voted down just this past February. The Maine Professional Guides Association, the North Maine Woods Association, who represents some 20 landowners in northern Maine that own 3.5 million acres of forestland in the state’s most popular bear hunting region, and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife actually opposed the idea. Other ideas include extending the already lengthy fall season and increasing the annual limit on bears taken by hunters. The annual limit is already two bears, one by hunting and one by trapping, but few bears are actually taken by trapping. Considering any proposal must be approved by the legislature, and considering politics are dictating wildlife management instead of trained professionals, rarely a good thing, anything or nothing can get happen. In the meantime, Maine’s bear population will continue to grow and offer some of the finest fall bear hunting opportunities in the country.