A Brief History of Maine’s Bear Management
Maine’s black bear, once regarded as no more than a nuisance, is now a valued game animal that provides the state with recreational and economic opportunities. Monetary bounties were offered for killing bears until 1957, when attitudes towards bear began to change to protect bears by instituting hunting seasons and bag limits.
Maine is at the forefront of black bear management and research, with one of the most extensive and comprehensive bear studies in the nation. Since it began in 1975, over 3,000 bears have been captured, released and tracked. Maine Wildlife biologists track between 80-100 bears annually and over 80 bear dens are visited each winter to collect detailed information on survival, cub birth rates, behavior and health.
Maine’s bear population is on the rise, increasing over 30% in the past ten years, and is currently estimated at over 30,000 bears. Maine’s black bear research shows that to maintain the bear population at the publicly-derived population objective between 3,500 and 4,500 bears need to be removed from the population annually. Since 2005, the bear harvest has averaged 2,910 bears annually in response to fewer hunters with the downturn in the US economy. The decline in harvest accounts for the recent rise in Maine’s bear population.
Since 2004, human/bear conflicts have increased as well. Conflicts averaged approximately 400 per year prior to 2004, and now average over 500 per year. Although conflicts between bears and people in Maine have increased, conflicts are relatively low compared to other eastern States where up to thousands of bear complaints are received annually.
A well-managed bear population keeps human/bear conflicts low while providing recreational and economic opportunities. Sales of bear hunting permits and hunting licenses accounts for over 4% of the department’s annual revenue; and a 2004 economic study showed that bear hunting contributed over $60 million to the Maine economy and supports over 900 jobs.
(Prior to 1999 – from MDIFW’s Black Bear Assessment written by Craig McLaughlin)
The earliest efforts to manage bears were township-level bounties to reduce bear depredations on agriculture. The first bounty on bears was offered by the town of Scarborough in 1770, and bounties were offered in parts of Maine most years from 1880 through 1957.
Bears were not protected by a closed season until 1931, when the legislature classified them as game animals and instituted a short open season that ran coincidentally with the fall deer season. This protection was in effect for 10 years, even though bounties continued on bears in northeastern and southern Maine.
By 1942, bears were once again legal game year round. The next protection they were offered was in 1966, when a June 1 – December 31 season was enacted. A bag limit of one bear/hunter/year was first imposed in 1969, the same year that mandatory registration of harvested bears was required, cubs were protected, and cable traps were legalized for trapping.
Cubs became legal game in 1971, and minor changes in season dates occurred during the next few years, although bears were essentially hunted during most of the period that they were not in dens (May – November).
The 1970s marked greater efforts to monitor the bear population, and the Department began its bear study in 1975 to provide data for management. Rapidly increasing harvests in the late 1970s led to a series of actions to reduce harvest levels and maintain bear numbers. The Commissioner ordered an emergency closure of the bear season in September 1980, after the season harvest (through November) was projected to greatly exceed the management objective of 800-1,000 bears.
In 1981, legislative action created two separate bear seasons, held in the spring and fall. By 1982 a fall-only season framework was in place, and no spring seasons have been held since. The Wildlife Division sampled the ages of harvested bears during the 1970s through voluntary collections of premolar teeth from guides and hunters. Mandatory submission of premolars from hunter-killed bears was in effect from 1981 through 1986.
These tooth collections allowed Department biologists to determine the age distribution of the harvest. The tooth age collection was dropped because no direct relationship had been established between changes in the age distribution of the harvest and concurrent changes in the composition and status of the bear population. Increased restrictions on the timing and placement of bear bait, and on the timing and areas open to training hounds on bear, became law in 1987.
Current Management (1990-1999)
Bear management has remained relatively constant since 1990, with only minor changes in harvest regulations. Harvest regulations continue to be applied uniformly statewide, with no regional differences despite Wildlife Management Unit-specific abundance objectives.
Current season dates resulted from concern over sustained growth in bear harvests during 1986 -1989, which exceeded the objective of 1,500-2,500 bears. The large harvests were primarily due to greater participation in hunting over bait. In 1990, the bait hunting period was reduced from 9 weeks to 4 weeks, opening in late August.
Hunting with hounds was restricted from 9 weeks to 6-7 weeks starting in mid-September, and still-hunting/stalking was reduced from 13-14 weeks to 4 weeks during the firearms deer season in November. Lastly, the trapping season was shortened from 9 weeks to a 4-week period encompassing October.
To minimize conflicts between hunters using bait and hunters pursuing bears with hounds, the opening date of the houndsmen’s season was delayed, opening 2 weeks after bait season began. The Department also removed the trapping period from the baiting season in response to concerns about the illegal use of traps near hunters’ baits.
These season changes were designed to minimize restrictions on hunting opportunity, while ensuring that annual harvests would be conservative enough to maintain the population at 21,000 bears. The Department has used an interim harvest objective of less than 2,300 bears per year since 1990 to promote positive population growth, following the population decline in the late 1980s.
A few lesser changes in season structure have occurred since 1990. The baiting and houndsmen’s hunting periods have remained unchanged, but both the period of still-hunting/stalking and the trapping season were expanded. Beginning in 1994, still-hunting and stalking were allowed throughout the 3-month bear season, and the trapping season was expanded from 4 weeks to 5 weeks in length. In 1997, the trapping season was extended to its pre-1990 length of 2 months (September and October). Few bears are harvested by still-hunting/stalking prior to November, or by trapping. Consequently, liberalization of harvesting opportunity for these methods of take had little effect on overall harvest levels.
Bear Assessment: Since 1999
In 2003, the cost of bear hunting permits (required of all bear hunters before deer season) increased from $5 to $25 for residents and $15 to $65 for nonresidents.
In 2007 the number of traps allowed per trapper changed from 2 to 1 and steel jawed traps were removed from legal trapping devices, leaving foothold snares (set at or below ground level) and live traps (typically, cage or culvert style) as the only legal trapping methods.
In 2008, a new permit system was instituted for bear hunting and trapping. It required a special permit for trappers and nonresident deer hunters ($25 for resident trappers, and $65 for NR trappers and deer hunters who want to hunt or trap bears).
In 2008, the Department reinstated voluntary bear tooth submission to monitor bear population trend based on the age structure of harvested black bears. In 2011, to obtain a better sample of bear ages, the Department required hunters to submit a tooth when they harvested a black bear.
In 2009, dog training season for bears opened on July 1st (previously August 1st) for consistency with other dog training seasons.
There were two changes to hound hunting in 2011. The number of dogs allowed changed from 4 to 6 to provide opportunities for new dogs to gain experience from older dogs and the hound training season ended on the 4TH day before the opening of bait hunting season (previously ending the day before the season) to avoid conflicts between hunters.
Also in 2011, bear hunters were allowed to take one bear by trapping and one by any other method (this took effect midway through the 2011 season). This change was to provide more opportunity to hunters and trappers that purchased both a bear hunting and trapping permits and was in-line with the Department’s goal to increase bear harvest.
In the last 10 years, Maine’s bear population has increased by 30% to more than 30,000 bears in response to declining hunter numbers and harvest. To stabilize bear numbers at levels desired by a diverse public, an annual harvest of between 3,500 and 4,500 bears is needed. Maine offers hunters one of the longest fall hunting seasons, a bag limit of up to 2 bears, and a variety of methods (bait, hounds, traps, and still-hunting) to hunt bears in Maine, however bear harvest remains below objectives. Further restriction on Maine’s bear hunt will make it increasingly more difficult to meet publically derived objectives to stabilize bear population growth.