Maine’s got too may bears

Maine’s bear population is too high and DIFW is looking for ways to reduce that population. This is one key goal in the agency’s new big game management plan.

In previous posts, I’ve written about the overall plan and the specific plans for turkeys and deer. Today we’ll tackle black bears.
Maine started paying bounties on bears in 1770. By 1900, bears had been eradicated from much of southern and coastal Maine, and between 1903 and 1952, nearly 13,000 bears were presented for payment. Starting around 1950, Bear populations began to slowly expand and by 1985, 86% of the state was occupied by bears.

A major reason that the bear population has expanded is a decline in hunter participation and harvest. From 2005 to 2016, the number of hunters declined below 4,000 annually. Over the last decade, the bear population has increased by 2% to 4% annually and currently exceeds 35,000 animals.

Although beers do eat everything from berries to insects, they are significant predators of dear fawns and moose calves. Beech nuts used to be a very important food source for bears, but beech trees have declined significantly due to beech bark disease and subsequent timber harvest.

Although the black bear hunting season opens the last Monday in August and closes the last Saturday in November, a three-month period, most bears are shot over bait. Bait hunting is allowed for just the first four weeks of the season and then dogs are permitted for a six week period. Two of those weeks overlap with the bait season.

Nonresident permits increased significantly after 1999, probably in response to the closure of the spring bear season in Ontario. Beginning in 2003, permit levels began to decline. DIFW thinks the decline was caused by an increase in permit fees to $27 for residents and $67 for nonresidents. It’s hard for me to believe that a resident would choose not on bears because it cost $27. DIFW also thinks that increased opportunities to hunt bears in neighboring states has caused a decline in nonresident hunters in Maine.

There has been an increase in interest in trapping bears amongst both residents and nonresidents. Over the last seven years resident permits increased from 300 to 600 and nonresident permits from 25 to 75. Since 2005, success rates for hunters during the bait and dog seasons ranged from 25 to 35%.

In 2008, responding to increasing bear numbers, the legislature increased the bag limit from 1 to 2 bears annually – one bear allowed by hunting and another by trapping. But few took advantage of the increased limit. The department is also considering reinstating a spring hunting season but that would be very controversial. They believe that a spring hunt would be particularly beneficial in reducing human conflicts with bears and the depredation of moose calves and dear fawns. Since 2008, the number of calls received by the department regarding bear conflicts has increased from 300 to 500 annually.

The department says that in order to maintain healthy bear populations in suitable habitats, and to minimize conflicts in more urban areas, the growth rate of Maine’s bear population needs to slow down. They think the harvest needs to increase to at least 15% of the population. They believe adjustments to season timing, bag limits, and other aspects of bear hunting rules and efforts are needed in order to increase participation and ensure the bears do not increase more rapidly than the public will tolerate, or reach numbers that are unhealthy for the bears.

The department notes that the lack of a strong bear hunting culture in southern and central Maine, and hunting restrictions in more populated areas, such as firearm discharge laws and limited access to private land, will make it challenging to control the bear population with hunting. The department hopes to increase interest in bear hunting to keep the population at a level consistent with healthy, productive bears that experience few human conflicts.

To achieve the department’s management goals there a lot of strategies, policies, regulations and communications options in the new plan. Here are some of the more interesting:

Request an extension to the commissioner’s authority to set hunting season frameworks and bag limits including establishment of special hunts in areas of high human – bear conflict.

Where appropriate to meet regional population objectives, adjust bear bag limits and hunting seasons to increase the bear harvest. Potential options include
• extending the bait season
• expanding a multiple – bear bag limit
• providing additional hunting opportunities in areas experiencing high levels of human – bear conflict
• establishing an experimental spring bear hunting season in areas with high levels of human – bear conflict to assess its effectiveness in reducing conflicts
• adding a youth hound day to increase hunting pressure in certain areas.

Reduce the cost of both resident bear permits, recognizing that permits are important for identifying participation and success rates, and reducing permit fees may increase participation.

Eliminate the permit requirement to harvest a bear while moose hunting to increase interest in participation by other hunters.
In the section on outreach and communication, I especially liked the idea of promoting bear meat as good table faire by developing YouTube videos for how to cook, dress, etc. bear meat for mass audiences and promoting hunters for the hungry. I consider bear meat to be one of the tastiest of all our wild game animals.

Maine has suffered two referendums on bear hunting and trapping with approximately $8 million spent on advertising but the department feels it is apparent that many members of the public still have a poor understanding of these hunting methods and the regulatory framework that governs them.

The department reported that it seems clear that among Maine residents, there is a segment that has concerns with some forms of bear hunting that cannot be resolved with outreach or adjustments to the methods. However, focus groups indicated that accurate information on the importance of the methods of Maine’s bear management program, and numerous regulations, along with hunters’ self-imposed codes of practice that accompany each method, could result in improved public support.

It will certainly be interesting to see how the department chooses to deal with Maine’s increasing population of black bears.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website,, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.