Last December, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW) put out a survey asking hunters: “If the law allowed you to harvest two bears while hunting, would you attempt to harvest two bears?”

That certainly got the hunting forums buzzing with conjecture about how that might happen, whether it would simply be a second fall bear tag or might pave the way to reopen the spring season.

Part of the impetus behind this survey is the current hunting season framework has failed to result in hunters achieving the biologist’s harvest objectives. As a result, our bear herd is booming. Between 2004 and 2014, Maine’s bear population has risen from 23,000 to around 36,000. That’s more than 1,000 bears a year being added to the population when the objective is to stabilize or slightly reduce it.

All this is occurring with a multiseason framework that represents the longest hunting season for other big game animals in Maine. Those seasons involve using traditional methods – hounds, trapping and bait – that were almost outlawed twice due to referendum questions placed on the ballot by folks who felt those methods resulted in killing too many bears, despite bear hunters experiencing only about a 26 percent success rate. Clearly something needs to be done, and it’s not just to reduce the number of nuisance and damage complaints resulting from bear-human interactions. There’s another compelling reason for trimming Maine’s bear population.

A cooperative study of fawn mortality in Pennsylvania found black bears to be a major predator of young white-tailed deer. That was 20 years ago, in a state where hunters annually kill over 300,000 deer and the bear population is estimated at around 18,000. Imagine the potential impact in a state with far fewer deer and many more bears. We can do more than just imagine. Renowned bear biologist Lynn Rogers found bears killed around 10 percent of available fawns in Minnesota. Other research has documented bear predation on deer in the central Adirondacks and Oregon, where it was deemed significant.

An Idaho study found: “Bear predation appears to be additive at low (hoofed mammal) densities and may become compensatory as prey density approaches carrying capacity. As such, black and brown bear predation can limit, but generally does not regulate, (hoofed mammal) populations.”

What does that mean? In healthy deer populations that are in balance with available habitat, bears may take their fair share but the deer population can replace what is taken through reproduction. When the deer population drops below a certain level, additional predation prevents the herd from replenishing itself. It may stabilize or even decline. That seems to be the case in parts of northern and Downeast Maine, due in large part to coyote and bear predation.

But there’s more sobering news. Even where the highest deer densities occur – in central and southern Maine – they are artificially maintained at around 50 percent of carrying capacity. According to the research, that means bear predation is additive throughout the state, and suggests it could be a significant factor where deer populations are particularly low.

Interestingly, sportsmen are quick to vilify coyotes as great plunderers of our deer herd but take a more modest stance when it comes to black bears. Some of that is likely attributable to the lack of available information on the impact of bear predation. But some is also due to the bear’s status as a big game animal, and an important commercial resource for the guiding industry.

Both animals are predators. Both are wildlife resources that if conservatively managed can be harvested in perpetuity. And both impact what is unquestionably the cash cow of all state wildlife management and conservation programs, the hunting industry and to a great extent, tourism. From almost any reasonable perspective it appears we need to trim our bear herd. Deciding how we accomplish that is likely to be a contentious process particularly when considering that current methods, which some find distasteful, are inadequate in getting the job done. We must also keep in mind that until northern deer and moose populations recover, assuming they do, bears represent an important commercial resource for outfitters and lodge owners.

Clearly an objective study is long overdue. It’s time we take a much closer look at how much of an impact bears have on Maine’s deer and moose populations. Then we need to take appropriate responsible action based on the results. The days of “letting nature take its course” ended shortly after two-legged hominids learned to use tools. We now bear the onus of responsibly managing our wildlife resources, even if it means regularly removing a portion of the crop.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]