AUGUSTA, Maine – With Maine’s bear management program the subject of a statewide referendum, Mainers are hearing a lot about Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Massachusetts, four states that have passed similar measures.
After similar referendums passed in these states, generally these states have has seen an increase in the bear population, an increase in the number of nuisance complaints, an increase in the number of nuisance bears killed and an increased cost to the public as a result of expanding bear populations. Voters in Massachusetts, Colorado, Washington and Oregon banned bear hunting with bait and hounds from 1992 to 1996.
In Massachusetts, the bear population has increased seven-fold and bear conflicts have increased by 500 percent. Wayne MacCallum, director of the state’s Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, described the situation in an August 24 article in the Portland Press Herald: “(The bear population) is expanding eastward,” he said. “Every year now there are an increasing number of juvenile bears in metropolitan Boston. I suspect if we can’t harvest significantly more, the population will continue to increase.”
He went on to state that “there are constant complaints about bear encounters. We are constantly moving bears. It’s kind of like shoveling sand against the tide. This is the largest bear population in the state for at least 200 years. The fact of the matter is, at some point you will just have so many bears that people won’t tolerate them.”
In Colorado, more than 350 bears are killed each year in response to conflicts. Many towns have passed ordinances that regulate how residents can store their garbage and when it can be placed for curbside pickup, with fines ranging up to $1,000. One Colorado county even banned levered door handles on new houses because home entries by bears are so common.
In some Colorado towns, bear complaints are the number-one call received by police departments. When asked what impact a similar ban would have on Maine’s bear management program, Colorado bear biologist Jerry Apker recently said, “I think it would tremendously complicate how the State has to approach managing bears in Maine.”
In Oregon and Washington, biologists have struggled to prevent property damage by bears since the referendum passed, and those states now allow private landowners and deputized agents to kill bears using bait, hounds and traps in unlimited numbers.
Despite this, bears cause an estimated $16 million in damage to the timber industry each year by stripping the bark from young trees. Donny Martorello, the Carnivore Section Manager with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, recently told 92.9 Radio Host Bob Duchesne that before the referendum, “we were able to use recreational hunters at a very low cost and through time (that) was working well.” While he respects the rights of voters to pass a citizen initiative, he went on to say that “having that full toolbox of ways to manage the resource is something we’d like to see.”
In Maine, bait, hounds, and traps account for 93 percent of our annual bear harvest. Maine is the most forested state in the country, and our woods have a thick understory, which makes still-hunting extremely difficult. The loss of bait, hounds and traps for bear hunting will have a much larger impact on Maine’s bear management program than it has in other states.
In addition, Maine has very few options to increase participation by bear hunters if the referendum passes. The state already has a 14-week hunting season that starts in late August and ends after bears have entered their dens. Bear hunting licenses are already available in unlimited numbers, and a spring hunting season is prohibited by legislation.
During the firearms season on deer, all Maine residents are already allowed to hunt bears without having to purchase a separate bear license. Since Maine won’t be able to offset a reduction in the bear harvest by increasing hunter numbers or season length, if the referendum passes we expect the bear harvest to decline dramatically. This will result in a rapidly increasing bear population that expands into the more populated areas of Maine, causing more conflicts with people.
Even though each of these states is very different from Maine in several ways, it is informative to understand how their bear management programs have evolved over time. Maine’s bear biologists discussed each state’s bear management programs and hunting methods with the biologists in these states. As a result, Maine’s biologists are more convinced than ever that a ban on bear hunting with bait, hounds and traps will be bad for Maine.
In all of these states that passed similar referendums, bait and hounds were responsible for a relatively small portion of the annual bear harvest because the open habitats make other hunting methods, like spot and stalk, more effective. Therefore, it was possible for the fish and wildlife agencies to partially offset the decline in the bear harvest that occurred after the referendums passed.
This was accomplished by lengthening fall hunting seasons, reducing the cost of bear hunting licenses, expanding spring hunting seasons, increasing annual bag limits or issuing more bear hunting permits.
In some states, bear tags were included in a package with other big game licenses, so that virtually all hunters could shoot a bear if they saw it. The rise in bear hunter numbers was due to changes in how hunting licenses were administered, rather than an actual increase in interest in bear hunting (e.g. all big game hunters receive a bear tag and then are counted as bear hunters whether they actually pursue bears or not). Even with these changes, each of the harvests in these states is less than half the number of bears that need to be taken in Maine each year to control the population.
Maine is fortunate to have one of the largest bear populations in the country. We have very few conflicts between people and bears, and those that do occur are generally not severe. Fewer than a dozen bears are killed each year to protect property or public safety. Our bear management program is based on 40 years of research and is highly regarded by biologists across the country.
Leaving bear management in the capable hands of Maine’s biologists and game wardens will ensure that bears retain their stature as one of our state’s most treasured resources.