Two states that banned controversial bear-hunting methods through citizens initiatives in the 1990s have seen growing bear populations despite an increase in hunting permits.
In Oregon, where voters approved a measure to ban the use of baits and hounds in bear hunting in 1994, the black bear population has increased by 40 percent. In Massachusetts, where a ballot measure to ban hounds and traps in bear hunts passed in 1996, the bear population has skyrocketed by 700 percent.
Maine voters face their second bear-hunting referendum in a decade in November. It asks: “Do you want to ban the use of bait, dogs or traps in bear hunting except to protect property, public safety, or for research?” A similar statewide referendum was rejected in 2004 by a 53-to-47 percent margin.
Supporters of the referendum say these hunting practices are cruel and give hunters an unfair advantage. Opponents argue that the practices are vital to keeping the state’s bear population in check.
Maine’s annual bear hunt starts Monday. Biologists expect the harvest once again to be lower than needed to control a growing bear population, currently estimated at more than 31,000.
That’s one of the largest black bear populations in the lower 48 states, according to Maine bear biologist Jennifer Vashon. The state’s bear population has grown from 23,000 in 1999 – a 35 percent increase in 15 years – even though Maine is the only state in the nation to allow all three controversial bear-hunting methods.
But hunter effort has declined in the past decade, and Vashon said this makes managing the bear population difficult. She said Maine hunters need to kill 3,500 to 4,500 annually in order to control the bear population. In the past decade, the harvest has averaged 3,000.
In 2004, there were more than 13,000 bear hunters who bought bear permits in Maine, a number that steadily dropped to fewer than 11,000 today, Vashon said.
“We don’t have a lot of bear in the southern coastal section of the state. But as the population grows that will become more common,” she said.
Vashon said the northern forestland in Maine can support many more bears. Maine’s vast forestland has an ecosystem rich with insects, vegetation, berries and nuts that allows bears to thrive, she said.
COMPLAINTS HOLD STEADY IN OREGON
Wildlife biologists in Oregon and Massachusetts also are having difficulty managing their bear populations.
In Oregon, the black bear population has increased from 25,000 in the 1990s to 35,000 today, according to state biologist Thomas Thornton.
The number of bear-hunting permits sold in Oregon expanded from 18,412 in 1994 to 60,236 in 2013. But the number of bears killed by Oregon hunters has remained steady – between 1,200 and 1,450 annually, said Thornton, the game program manager at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“Hunting is much less efficient without dogs and bait. Today the bear tag is about the cheapest tag in Oregon. We’ve held the price low deliberately,” Thornton said.
Despite the increase in Oregon’s bear population, reports of bears causing conflicts with people have remained fairly steady over the past two decades, Thornton said. Bear complaints range between the 150 and 400 annually, he said.
Cougars are a far bigger problem in Oregon.
“There has not been the bear issue for us that there has been with cougars because of the human safety concern,” said Thornton, who estimates the state’s cougar population at 6,000.
State Rep. Sherrie Sprenger has sponsored bills in the Oregon legislature to return the use of dogs in cougar hunts – a practice also banned in the 1994 referendum.
“I do not have near the level of concern with bears that I’ve had with cougars. The cougar population has doubled and cougars are coming into towns. One was hit by a school bus. You can still hunt cougars and bears, but hunting cougars now is extremely ineffective after the ballot measure of 1994.”
Several bills have been introduced in Oregon to return the bear-hunting methods banned in 1994.
“Wildlife management should be handled by professionals who know how to figure out what is the maximum size of a species population the habitat can sustain,” said state Rep. Brian Clem, the former chairman of Oregon’s Committee on Natural Resources and the author of five different bills to return to previous bear-hunting methods. “Let’s not legislate through emotional behavior what is good for wildlife population control.”
MASSACHUSETTS’ HARVEST STAGNANT
In Massachusetts, the black bear population has grown dramatically – from 500 in the 1990s to 1,500 a decade later. Today it is estimated at more than 4,000, according to Wayne MacCullum, director of the state’s Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
“(The bear population) is expanding eastward,” he said. “Every year now there are an increasing number of juvenile bears in metropolitan Boston. I suspect if we can’t harvest significantly more, the population will continue to increase.”
At the same time, the number of bear-hunting permits has increased from about 2,000 in 1995 to 7,000 today because of a longer hunting season, MacCullum said. The length of Massachusetts’ bear season has grown from two weeks in 1996 to seven weeks today. And the department is now considering expanding the season into December.
But the harvest has remained stagnant. Hunters killed 134 bears in 1995, but over the past decade hunters have averaged fewer than 170 kills annually.
MacCullum said it’s not enough to cull the growing bear population.
“We’re selling bear tags for $5. I believe because we have more bear, hunters think they have more opportunity,” MacCullum said. “But the reality is the inability to use dogs makes the efficacy of the hunt very poor.”
Today MacCullum said black bears in Massachusetts are causing agricultural damage and entering camps in the western mountains. State wildlife officials move bears each year, but MacCullum said it’s no solution.
“There are constant complaints about bear encounters,” he said. “We are constantly moving bears. It’s kind of like shoveling sand against the tide. This is the largest bear population in the state for at least 200 years. The fact of the matter is, at some point you will just have so many bear that people won’t tolerate them.”
Voters in two other states – Colorado and Washington – also passed similar bear-hunting restrictions in 1992 and 1996, respectively. Bear-population data from these states was unavailable.
The Colorado Parks and Wildlife website states: “In Colorado conflicts among people and black bears are increasing in frequency and severity, and have become a high priority wildlife management issue.”
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife does not conduct an ongoing statewide black bear population estimate, according to its website, but the department describes the bear population there as one that occurs in 31 of 37 counties, and one in conflict with people.
It states on its “living with wildlife” page: “With an estimated population of 25,000 statewide, black bears are the most common source of potentially dangerous conflicts. Black bear complaints to WDFW are increasing.”