September 11, 2011

Signs of more bears raise prospect of spring hunt

A state expert expects population growth will increase hunting, and guides welcome the idea.

By Deirdre Fleming dfleming@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The fall bear baiting season is in full swing, but many guides are talking about a spring bear season.

click image to enlarge

A state biologist prepares to put a new radio collar on a drugged female bear during a past winter den check.

Staff file photo

Black bear in Maine can be hunted in the fall just about any way that is legal in the United States, through baiting, trapping, use of hounds or stalking.

But Maine bear biologist Jennifer Vachon says it's not enough, and as she hones the state's population estimate -- currently in the range of 24,000 to 36,000 -- she predicts the state will be looking to change the hunt in the years to come.

"Based on current estimates, we are very likely under-harvesting the bear population," Vachon said. "With that in mind, the goal is to stabilize it through hunting."

One possibility is a spring bear hunt, which excites guides, but would be a big enough change to require public input on a large scale.

Guides like it, because it means an extra season to host sportsmen at their camps -- and they believe it would help the deer herd, which Vachon said does suffer from waking bruins feeding on fawns.

"What the impact on the deer herd is, we don't know. Studies are done in Pennsylvania to suggest it limits the deer population growth, but is that the case in Maine? We don't know," she said.

Joshua Rhodes at Eastern Ridge Adventures guide service in Machias is excited about the prospect of a spring season, but only if it is done carefully, and guides are careful.

Rhodes already guides for a spring season on Passamaquoddy land, where the tribe sets its own hunting regulations. He says he takes no more than a few bears from a large area, to keep the population healthy.

But a spring bear season would mean Maine could draw hunters who go to Canada at that time.

"A lot of hunters around the country, they'd love another opportunity to hunt big game. And it would mean a lot of income into sporting camps," Rhodes said.

Other guides say there may be other ways to cull the bear population and offer opportunities hunters would take advantage of in Maine.

Dennis Brawn at Maine Game Guide Service in Dover-Foxcroft said out-of-state hunters would buy a second bear permit in the fall if it were offered.

But Brawn still hopes a spring season will gain support.

"A spring season would be awesome. It's the way to go," Brawn said. "My buddy owns a lodge in New Brunswick. He is booked every spring. What else can you do, go hunt turkey? Personally, I think they're rodents."

Vachon insists that all signs -- harvest, den checks and nuisance complaints -- indicate the bear population in Maine is growing. And this means changes in the bear hunt are likely to occur.

Part of the problem is fewer hunters participating, so fewer bears have been taken in recent years. Since half the successful bear hunters in Maine are from out of state, the economic downturn has curtailed their effort.

On average, there are only 12,000 bear hunters in Maine, compared to 180,000 deer hunters, Vachon said.

Another problem is that bear reproduction is booming.

"At the den checks, we're finding bears are having healthier cubs and yearlings and more cubs. That's been going on for a number of years," Vachon said.

New this year is a second bear permit for trappers, allowing a successful hunter to harvest another bear.

Vachon thinks very few people will take advantage of the extra opportunity, and a spring hunt will be talked about soon.

"If we go down that road, we'd have to look at regulations that would limit females. They have a spring bear hunt in Canada; we'd look there for ideas. In Canada, they time the bear hunt so it's right after bears leave the dens. Females are the last to leave the dens," Vachon said. 

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

 

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