Black bears foraging for food are appearing in neighborhoods across southern and central Maine, prompting an increase in calls to state wildlife officials and warnings from local police to make backyards less attractive to the animals.

So far this year there have been 605 bear complaints, outpacing the total of 400 for all of 2013. Given that there are about 30,000 bears in Maine – a 30 percent increase from 10 years ago and more bears than any other state east of the Mississippi River – the number of complaints is relatively small, according to wildlife officials.

But a state official said the number and severity of bear complaints are likely to rise if voters approve new restrictions on hunting. A November referendum seeks to ban the use of bait, traps and dogs for bear hunting. Maine voters rejected a similar ban in 2004.

Judy Camuso, wildlife division director for the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said the ban could lead to less hunting and more complaints from people who find the presence of bears in their neighborhood worrisome.

“It’s important for people to understand we do have black bears in southern Maine and it’s not unusual,” she said. “We have real concerns about what will happen if we lose our ability to use these tools – hunting with dogs or bait – to control the population.”

Supporters of the ban say baiting and trapping are cruel and unsportsmanlike methods that do nothing to control the bear population.

“We are talking about putting 7 million pounds of junk food into the Maine woods,” said Katie Hansberry, campaign director for Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting – a coalition of organizations that support the proposed hunting restrictions. “The addition of that much food (for baits and traps) is boosting their nutrition and will increase the bear population.”

Hansberry said using food to lure bears into hunting areas also reduces the creatures’ natural wariness of humans and will lead to an increase in nuisance complaints.

“What they are doing is not working,” Hansberry said. “We are rewarding bears. We are creating nuisance bears.”

Maine’s bear hunting season is scheduled to begin Aug. 25 and run for about three months. One of the state’s longest seasons, it draws more than 10,000 hunters. Camuso said a recent survey showed that 78 percent of out-of-state hunters and 60 percent of resident bear hunters would not participate if the bear-baiting ban passes.

The summer months, just before the hunting season begins, often bring calls about bears knocking over bird feeders, tearing apart trash bags and ambling through backyards. Most of these complaints come from southern and central Maine, where there are fewer bears but more people, Camuso said.

This week, Wells police notified residents of bears around Perry Oliver Road and Searfoss Lane, both in the more rural areas of town. Police Chief Jo-Ann Putnam said the sightings are a good reminder to clean up around bird feeders and make sure trash isn’t left outside.

“This is the time of year they’re out looking for berries and food,” Putnam said. “They’re just moving a lot.”

In June, July and early August, bears are consuming as much as 26,000 calories a day to prepare for winter hibernation, Camuso said.

“People are naturally cautious when their interaction with wildlife gets closer than they’re comfortable with,” she said. “(Black bears) are hard to see if they’re not right in your backyard.”

The annual number of bear nuisance calls varies widely and is tied to the availability of food such as berries. During the past six years, complaints have ranged from a low of 376 in 2008 to a high of 829 in 2012, when the natural food supply was poor and bears sought other sources of food, such as trash cans, that brought them in contact with humans, Camuso said. The number of calls this year already has outpaced every year since 2008.

The presence of bears in populated areas isn’t necessarily an immediate cause for concern. Wildlife officials will remove a bear from a neighborhood only if it is being aggressive, which is rare. In 2010, a bear hunter in Penobscot County was bitten by a 300-pound bear, but Camuso said those situations are unusual in Maine.

In 2011, game wardens shot and killed a 220-pound black bear in the East Deering neighborhood of Portland because of public safety concerns. The bear meat was donated to soup kitchens.

Stories about aggressive bears are more common in other states, including Florida, where the rapid expansion of housing and retail developments has encroached on bear habitat.

“In New Jersey, they sometimes have upwards of 100 home entries a year,” Camuso said. “People will come in and find there’s a black bear looking in their fridge.”

Camuso believes those types of situations could increase in Maine if fewer bears are harvested. Roughly 10,000 people – including 5,000 from out of state – hunt bears in Maine each year. The harvest needs to include 3,500 to 4,500 bears to control the population, Camuso said, adding that restrictions on the hunt could drop the harvest to 500 bears.

“I suspect the impact will be substantial,” she said. “Right now our bears are pretty well behaved.”

Officials say people can make their yards less attractive to bears by cleaning up seeds under bird feeders, securing trash, keeping outdoor grills clean and feeding household pets inside.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.