With the population of black bears in Maine above the management plan, the herd could spread into more-populated areas. Becky Bohrer/Associated Press

The air is hot and humid. Crickets sing in a pace so rapid their chirps meld into a monotonous trill. The forest is verdant with lush, green foliage. It sounds and feels like a late summer day, but the fall hunting season has begun.

The opening of Maine’s bear season always seems a bit strange. The unofficial change of seasons from summer to fall – Labor Day – is still a week away and the official change won’t occur for several weeks. Nonetheless, it’s time to hunt.

Reasons for the early start are numerous and varied. Different species follow different schedules, and for black bears, late summer provides a period of abundant hard and soft mast and an opportunity to begin building a layer of fat that will sustain them through their long winter’s nap. That period won’t last long. Depending on mast abundance and climatic conditions, some may head into their dens in early to mid November, just about the time most hunters hit the woods. If they don’t start sooner, hunters might miss their chance at bagging a bruin.

Maximizing hunting opportunity has become more important in recent years as Maine’s bear population continues to grow beyond management objective levels. The current management plan calls for stabilizing the population at no less than 2005 levels through annual harvest – a population goal of 23,000 bears. However, only once since then has the bear harvest reached objective levels. For the rest, it was below.

A lower-than-expected harvest could mean a declining population, or insufficient hunting effort. Maine biologists have been studying this iconic species for decades and have a pretty good handle on population status. Among their recent findings are higher productivity, more recruitment and healthier individuals, indicating the population is quite healthy. In fact, it has increased by more than 30% since 2005, to an estimated 30,000 bears. With this growth has also come expansion, and bears are increasingly showing up in areas of denser human populations. Complaints currently average around 500 a year, but are expected to grow along with the bear population. Clearly, something needs to be done.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife continues seeking ways to increase both hunting opportunity and harvest. However, those efforts are far too often stymied in the legislative process. Public input is always important, but some special interest groups would rather see certain hunting methods, and therefore bear harvests, reduced or eliminated. Hunting groups bicker among themselves as to who should get a larger slice of bear pie. Some prefer doling it out to the locals, while others point to the economic importance of nonresident hunters. Bait hunters, dog hunters and trappers all want more than the others. So, the process stalls.

The problem and the bears aren’t going away, and will only increase without substantive action. Maine has a long history of bear hunting and it’s important to preserve traditional hunting methods, which has sometimes been a challenge. Next, we need to find solutions to stem and perhaps reduce the burgeoning bear population that will be acceptable to as many different factions as possible. The only way to accomplish that is by working together.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: bhunt@maine.rr.com

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