I saw a bear yesterday afternoon. This is my first bear sighting of the spring and is always an interesting event. I was driving a woods road near Turkeytail Lake and rounded a corner just in time to see the bear give me a startled glance before disappearing into the roadside foliage. The animal seemed to be in good condition and, as with most bear/human encounters, it quickly headed for parts unknown.
Maine’s black bear population seems to be thriving, thanks to a great degree to good management on the part of the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife (DIF&W) and the fact that bears are now considered a valuable big game animal rather than a nuisance. That means they are protected for much of the year and harvest quantities are closely watched.
When I was growing up, seeing a black bear was an uncommon event. The animals were treated as potential problems around towns and backwoods camps and the season for hunting them was open year around. Some municipalities even offered a bounty for bears killed and somewhere in my files I have a faded receipt issued to my grandfather for a $25 bounty fee paid to him for a bear around 1950.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the sport of bear hunting began to catch hold in Maine. Guides started to realize that non-resident hunters, especially, wanted to hunt these fine big game animals. Certain guides and outfitters began to specialize in bear hunting and the modern Maine bear hunt was born. Seasons were established and a one bear per year bag limit imposed. Supporting businesses like taxidermists, outdoor equipment retailers, tagging stations, and food and beverage stores sprang up to cater to the needs of bear hunters, and over a period of decades, an entire industry came into being. Today, bear hunting pumps literally millions of dollars into the rural Maine economy.
Maine has some excellent bear biologists, literally the best in the business nationwide. And bears need study, because numbers can fall dramatically if populations and seasonal harvest numbers aren’t watched closely.
Bears only breed every other year. A sow bear bred in July will give birth to cubs in her den during the following winter. That’s if feed is plentiful in the fall. During bad years, when natural feed is scarce, a bear may go into hibernation early, even as early as October. With poor feed, the fat layers necessary to sustain the animal through long months of hibernation just aren’t there and the cubs will not be born, or may be stillborn. In such cases the survival of the sow herself is questionable.
Sows give birth to anywhere from one to three or more cubs. I saw one sow with four cubs west of John’s Bridge in the Allagash one spring. The cubs will stay with the mother through all the next year and den with her the following winter. Only in the next spring will she drive them away to live on their own so that she can once again mate in June or July. The small bear I saw yesterday was likely one of these juveniles that had just been given the scoot.
These young bears, recently separated from their mothers, are often the ones that come into conflict with humans during the spring and summer. They lack the experience and caution of older animals and more willingly move into urban areas in search of food and entertainment, somewhat like teenagers going out for snacks and a movie. Tipped over trash cans, damaged buildings, and confrontations with pets and humans can be the result.
With trash kept in proper containers and people maintaining a safe distance from wandering bears, they usually find that their best bet for safety and food is back in the woods and that hanging around humans isn’t very productive. These animals disappear into the forest experiencing little further contact with people.
Occasionally, a nuisance animal continues to cause problems with property destruction and even pet or human injury becomes a very real possibility. With these animals, DIF&W personnel react quickly. Usually this takes the form of live trapping the bear and transporting it to a remote location where it won’t cause further harm. These instances are rare, but they do happen. Ninety-nine percent of the time, bear/human contact is benign.
Bears form a vital component of the rural economy in Maine and are interesting animals to encounter and watch. With proper management, we should have plenty of bears around to entertain future generations.
About the Author
Bob Cram is a guide and freelance outdoor writer from Millinocket, Maine. If you’d like to contact him, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org we’ll pass along the message.
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