October 11, 2010

Mark Latti: Bear hunt brings economic and biological benefits

Fall in Maine brings many opportunities to hunt. Maine's moose hunt has been called the hunt of a lifetime, and hunting the mountains of northern Maine can give you a shot at perhaps the buck of a lifetime.

click image to enlarge

Maine Guide Bob Parker, owner of Stony Brook Outfitters, listens intently with one of his walker hounds as another hound sets out during a recent bear hunt.

Mark Latti photo

Yet with the exception of 2004, when a referendum focused intense scrutiny on them, bear hunters enjoy exceptional big-game hunting throughout much of the state in relative anonymity.

Maine has one of the largest black bear populations in the country and the most bears east of the Mississippi, with an estimated 23,000.

"Maine's bear population is growing," says Jennifer Vashon, the state's top bear biologist. The question is how fast.

Vashon estimates that areas of northern Maine already have population densities of over one bear per square mile.

In order to keep Maine's bear population at its current level, IFW would like to see a harvest of 3,000 to 4,000 bears annually. Last year, hunters killed 3,486 bears, but the previous four years saw a bear kill of under 3,000 each year.

How fast the population is growing may be answered as early as next year. IFW has three bear study areas in the state where bears are collared and tracked, and reproductive and mortality rates are monitored. Biologists are now using GPS radio collars to get an even more accurate picture of a bear's home range.

In addition, biologists have also started a voluntary tooth collection as part of their research. A bear's tooth reveals a bear's age, much like the age rings on a tree. collecting age data over a period of five years, biologists can start to reconstruct the population. These two tools will allow Maine's bear biologists to come up with a more accurate bear population estimate.

Make no mistake, bear hunting in Maine is popular. According to license sale data from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, there are just as many bear hunters in Maine as there are waterfowl hunters.

The state sells nearly as many bear permits as bowhunting licenses. License and permit revenue from bear hunters exceeds $1.2 million annually.

And if you wonder what drives Maine's nonresident hunters, look no further than the bear hunt. Over 25 percent of all nonresident big-game hunters come to Maine to hunt bear.

Nonresident bear hunters are also going home happy. Last year, 2,208 nonresident bear hunters were successful. contrast, just 1,448 nonresident deer hunters got their deer.

Bob Parker, a Registered Maine Guide and outfitter who has been operating Stony Brook Outfitters with his wife Jaye since 1980, is well aware of the importance of Maine's bear hunt. He knows the hunt provides both an economic boost to rural areas of Maine, and keeps the bear population at a manageable level.

Parker is located in western Maine, and his customers -- mostly nonresidents -- hunt bear in the northern parts of Oxford, Franklin and Somerset counties.

Parker puts 15,000 to 20,000 miles on his truck during bear season. The night I was at his lodge, there were more than 10 hunters there, and each was fed a wonderful supper and breakfast.

Parker employs several guides, the number varying on how many sports are in camp.

He is a skilled hunter. In the past, Parker and his dogs have been called upon by Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to track endangered lynx in northern Aroostook county as part of a research study; and also by the Maine Warden Service several times to run his dogs on the scent of nuisance bears to scare them away from an area.

Recently I was able to accompany Parker and two sports on a bear hunt. We were hunting with a father, John, and his son Zack, from Connecticut. It was the son's second trip up to Stony Brook. Last year, he came and hunted over bait. This year, Zack brought his father and they were hunting bear with dogs.

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