Each year the Maine bear season begins the last Monday of August and ends the Saturday after Thanksgiving, a perennial boon for rural economies here since the 1970s. Bear hunting over man-placed bait and with hounds rapidly became popular for nonresident hunters in that decade, and it’s no exaggeration to say the sport spurred seasonal revenue in northern and eastern Maine, and kept some folks from moving out of state to find work.
Our 2014 bear season begins Monday and runs through Nov. 29 for hunters using methods such as taking a stand over natural forage or game trails, still hunting (sneaking through the woods looking for game) or stalking a sighted bruin. Precise dates vary annually with the calendar.
This year, hunting over man-placed bait lasts four weeks from Aug. 25 to Sept. 20, using hounds for almost eight weeks from Sept. 8 to Oct. 31, and trapping for two months from Sept. 1 to Oct. 31. Hunters with hounds can also bait, but after Sept. 20 they cannot shoot bear directly over bait.
This state’s bear offer a long hunt – over a quarter of the year – but our bruin population continues increasing. In fact, in 1990 bear numbered 18,000, but by 2010 they had risen to 30,000 or more. That is a key statistic.
Folks must possess a permit to hunt bruins legally while using bait or hounds, and last year more than 10,800 hunters bought a permit to hunt between Aug. 26 and Nov. 1 of 2013. This applies to all bear hunters despite the method of hunting, but they don’t need a bear permit to shoot a bear during the regular firearms deer season (Nov. 1 to Nov. 29). Just a regular big-game license will do. Trappers do not need a bear permit to trap but must buy a trapping license.
One out of four permit holders registered a bear in 2013, and by far most of the bear fell to folks sitting over man-placed bait. Through the years this popular method accounts for about 80 percent of the kill. Despite the advantage of bait and hounds, 75 percent of the hunters with permits didn’t shoot a bear in 2013 – a consistent statistic that varies little each year.
To the uninitiated, this law freeing bear hunters from buying a bear permit in the regular firearms deer season may look odd. Why must hunters in the August, September and October seasons purchase a permit while late-season bear enthusiasts don’t?
A great question.
For decades, hunters have been able to use a regular big-game license to shoot a bear during deer season. When the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW), and some legislators tried to make all hunters buy an additional permit to harvest a bear through November, other legislators and lobbyists from the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM) fought hard each time against the legislation. SAM and certain lawmakers wanted folks to continue this decades-old, bear-hunting tradition in November without buying a bear permit.
In 2013, hunters killed 2,845 bears, a figure IFW would like to increase by 1,655. Maine has more than 30,000-plus bear and must harvest 4,500 annually to stabilize this population to manageable numbers, according to wildlife biologists.
As in most years, folks with bait sites, dogs or traps accounted for 93 percent of the 2013 bear harvest, and 7 percent, according to IFW figures, fell to still hunters sneaking through the woods while looking for a bear.
This last statistic misleads because I suspect that a goodly chunk of the bears in that 7 percent figure fell to hunters quietly sitting over natural forage such as raspberries, blueberries, beechnuts, etc. Straight still hunting accounted for few harvested bear.
This November, a referendum will appear on the Maine ballot that could end man-placed baiting, trailing hounds and trapping before fall 2015. If it passes, then hunters no longer could practice an ancient tradition that predates Old World settlers. Such an outcome would hurt all hunters, but one tragedy would be job losses in rural communities.
Back in 2004 when this referendum question appeared on the ballot, George Smith, a well-known lobbyist, told me that voters in southern Maine narrowly defeated the right of bear hunters to bait, etc. Thankfully, voters in west-central, northern and eastern Maine supported the measure enough to offset southern voters and defeat the 2004 referendum.
That southern vote against baiting troubled me. If the bear herd is increasing, what’s the problem with baiting and dogs? Furthermore, why would people ignore the jobs benefit of bear baiting and hounds?
In 2004, I was watching a Maine TV news show in which a voter opposed baiting and dogs for bear hunting, and pooh-poohed this job argument. He was talking about guides and service workers in Jackman, and said if they couldn’t find work around this hamlet near the Canadian border, they could find employment at Wal-Mart.
There is no Wal-Mart in Jackman. If folks wanted a Wal-Mart job in this northern community, they must drive 73 miles over the mountains between Jackman and Skowhegan – a horrible winter commute. Do we care so little about our fellow workers?
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at