By George Smith
Thanks to Bob Duchesne, whose Saturday morning “Wild Maine” 92.9 radio shows on the bear referendum featured outstanding interviews with wildlife biologists Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, we now know the truth. Those are the three states that banned hunting bears with hounds and bait. Here is an excellent summary of what happened as a result, in a summary Bob sent to me a short time ago.
Common threads from all three biologists:
All three states were forced to vastly expand hunting opportunities. All three states allow Sunday hunting (and always did). Oregon and Washington start hunting August 1st, which would be the middle of Maine’s busiest tourist season. Oregon was also forced to add a spring season that starts in early to mid-April and runs through May.
Colorado’s referendum also banned the beginning of hunting season earlier than Sept 2, so they start as early as allowed, and they removed limits on the number of transport tags available. In fact, there were as many people legally qualified to harvest a bear last year as there were BEARS in that state. (That same referendum banned hunting bears with hounds, but not hunting mountain lions with hounds. Apparently, it is still sufficiently ethical to hunt cats with dogs in that state.
If Maine bans efficient bear hunting methods, Maine cannot also continue to restrict the length of the hunting week and hunting season and still hope to manage bears. To hunt bears as they do out west means longer seasons, Sunday hunting, and cheap licenses.
There is a huge amount of public land in the west – 30% to 40% of land in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado is public. In Maine, it’s about 5%, much of which is Baxter and Acadia. If Maine is forced to lengthen hunting seasons, as they were forced to do out west, that puts a lot of additional burden on private landowners. If Maine was forced into a spring hunt, we’d be sending pickup trucks into the woods, damaging private roads in the worst of our mud season.
Maine guides and Maine sporting camps have just three big game species to rely upon in order to sustain this part of our rural economy: black bear, white-tailed deer, and a very limited number of moose. In the west, they have mule deer, black-tailed deer, white-tailed deer, black bear, Rocky Mountain elk and Roosevelt elk, pronghorn antelope, mountain lion, big horn sheep, mountain goat, and a very limited number of moose. This also creates many more hunting opportunities out west for hunters to incidentally take a bear while hunting for other big game. For us, it’s really just deer.ing pickup trucks into the woods, damaging private roads in the worst of our mud season.
Thick woods in the east is not the only difference. Bears in the east rely on the fall mast production (acorns, beech nuts, hazel nuts, etc.) This is spread throughout the forest, making it difficult for spot-and-stalk or still hunting. In the west, bears rely more on berries and choke cherries, which tends to be concentrated in identifiable spots, enabling hunters to scan these areas from ridgelines at great distances.
Tidbits and quotes from individual state biologists:
Donny Monterello, Washington State bear biologist:
Washington State harvests 1200-1600 bears per year. After referendum, had to go to longer seasons and less expensive tags. Fewer people deliberately hunting bears now, and more bears are now being taken by deer and elk hunters. Incidental take spikes at the beginning of elk and deer seasons. (Maine doesn’t have elk.)
Bears in the west damage commercial timber to get to the sugar content beneath the bark in spring. Now, contracted hunters are paid to remove bears. It used to be that recreational hunters took care of the problem. They’ve also started a supplement feeding program to lure bears away from the trees. So, in commercial forestlands, even after the referendum, bait, hounds, and supplemental feeding are still required to manage the overpopulation of bears. But now it’s just more expensive. We don’t have those trees, but we do have damage to agricultural crops, particularly blueberries.
“One of the things that you guys have that we don’t is the fall mast production. Our state is dominated by coniferous forest, not hardwood forest.”
“Western environments and eastern environments are entirely different because of the fall mast production that occurs typically in the eastern environments, and the quantity and quality of that is entirely different than in western environments.”
Greg Jackyl, Oregon bear biologist
Speaking about hunting in the central and eastern part of Oregon: “Hunters can glass open ridge lines where bears are out feeding in the spring time and in the fall…and there are days when you can see upwards of ten bears a day and pick which one you want to go after.”
Speaking about hunting bears in the thickly wooded coastal range: “It makes it very challenging to find one because of the timber cover, so that would make it very advantageous to have hounds or bait in order for you to properly identify the sex of the bear and make sure it does not have cubs”.
Jerry Apker, Colorado bear biologist
Colorado estimates its bear population at 18,000 – 20,000, far less than Maine in a state three times our size. Their harvest last year was 1,172.
“I think the perception of most people is that they are more or less pretty stable over time and they grow relatively slowly. One of the things we’ve learned is that once a bear population reaches a certain momentum, then they can continue to grow at a pretty brisk pace if you don’t have throttles back on the population.”
Speaking about why Colorado decided to increase the harvest targets after that state’s referendum: “It was largely in response to incredibly increasing bear – human conflicts.”
“The reality is that we made more licenses available. I don’t think the increasing number of people interested in hunting is the reason for the increased harvest; it was the fact that we made more licenses available.”
Speaking about why there has been an increase in bear hunting in Colorado:“It’s not in the way we marketed it. It’s simply that there is a greater awareness that there is a really vast resource here in Colorado. There was certainly much more information out in the news about bear – human conflicts and the number of bears in places. I mean, Aspen was featured in National Geographic magazine.”
“I’ve never been in Maine. I do have some relatives who live in the north woods of Maine, and from what they’ve described to me, and what limited understanding I have of what Maine is like, it would be a very, very different kind of hunting in Maine versus Colorado. In Colorado, if I know that there is a really good choke cherry area in the fall, and I can sit up on a hill, a quarter mile or even a half mile away, I could sit up there with a spotting scope or even binoculars, and watch that area and look for bears, and then work my way in closer and try to get a shot. I suspect that there are relatively few places in the state of Maine where you could sit a half mile away and glass an area and even have a chance of seeing a bear.”
“I know a lot of people have said, well, Colorado’s done it so Maine can do it, too, in terms of prohibiting this and life would go on just fine. Well I think that will depend on how you define ‘just fine in life.’ I think in terms of just managing bears, I think it would just tremendously complicate how the state has to approach managing bears in Maine, just because of that plant type and terrain type difference that exists between Colorado and Maine, so I think that’s where comparisons have to stop.”
Speaking on the difference in food sources and locations: “They will forage on choke cherry and hawthorn berry and serviceberry – they’re really well known western-type berries, but non-existent back east, but those are the food sources for bears.”