AUGUSTA – Maine’s bear hunters and trappers have come under scrutiny again.

A Maine Voices column by Robert Fisk Jr. in the Oct. 20 Press Herald not only painted the state’s bear hunters in an unseemly light, but it also misled the public about the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s management of the species.

Bear hunting’s detractors continue to question population estimates, fair chase standards and the habits of a minority of hunters when it comes to black bears – perhaps more so than with any other species pursued in Maine.

No representative of IF&W has ever said that Maine’s bear population has doubled in the last 20 years.

Although wildlife biologist Jennifer Vashon, the state’s bear leader since 2002, acknowledged that it is certainly possible that the population “could” have doubled over that time period, she stressed the importance of completing current field surveys before providing an updated estimate.

“The actual number is not as important as monitoring the health of the Maine bear population and its impacts,” Vashon said. “What we know is that there have been more cubs each year and bears have been healthier and there hasn’t been a significant increase in the number of negative bear interactions with people.”

But population estimates are nothing more than a clever talking point.

What detractors want you to believe is that bear harvesting methods — trapping, hunting over bait or with hounds — are derived solely for the purpose of driving up IF&W revenues through the sale of bear hunting and trapping permits.

The department is funded almost entirely through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, as well as recreational vehicle and boat registrations to a smaller extent, but management of wildlife is never done to enhance profit margins.

Instead, they are managed according to specific goals identified by a public working group.

Those goals seek to stabilize the bear population in Maine through the removal of some bears via hunting and trapping as a balance to new bears being born annually.

Roughly 15 percent of the state’s bear population is harvested annually by hunters and trappers. Nearly 70 percent of hunters and trappers are unsuccessful each year in bringing home a bear.

No matter how much we try to convince ourselves it’s “unfair” to lure black bears with bait, they continue to hold every advantage.

Unlike hunting them in, say, a berry patch or a beechnut ridge where they are virtually ignored by hunters, a bait site is an obvious red flag scenario for a bear.

There is human food, human contact, human scent 100-fold, human devices, human footsteps.

When that black bear walks into that baited area, it is almost immediately put on alert. Like the hunter, the hunted is willingly playing the game — measuring risk versus reward with every step.

Arguments against baiting can be persuasive when we inappropriately tag bears with human emotions, but that would be both misleading and hypocritical.

Blanket statements have been made about resident and non-resident “weekend hunters” — labeling them in general terms as unskilled and lazy marksmen.

“Our studies show that only about one out of 300 bears are shot and killed but not recovered,” said Randy Cross, a wildlife biologist with some three decades of hands-on black bear experience.

“This is a relatively low crippling loss rate when compared to other animals which are shot in less-controlled situations.

“As for residence status and its correlation to hunting proficiency and marksmanship, non-resident bear hunters have a much higher success rate while hunting bear in Maine, suggesting they are able to overcome these deficiencies — if they do even exist.”

The facts are the facts: Hunting bears closely over bait gives hunters clear shooting lanes at close range in order to carry out the most humane, most effectively quick kills.

In the few instances where a bear is wounded by a shot but not recovered, people should be cautioned against assuming any specific level of “suffering.”

“I’ve spent my entire career trying to figure out what goes on inside a bear’s head,” Cross said.

“Bears don’t think just like we do. I also believe it takes a good deal more discomfort before I would judge a bear to be suffering in severe pain than a human in the same position.”

The only questionable shots in this debate aren’t being fired by hunters. Instead, they’re being taken by people stoking personal agendas.

It’s time — for fairness’ sake — to put the arguing to an end.

– Special to The Press Herald