Bear Problems
When not in their winter dens,
black bears spend most of their time searching for food.
Females (sows) and their offspring do most of their foraging in an area of about 6 to 10 square miles. They share their home range with male (boar) bears, which tend to use a larger area. Maine bears of either sex may make excursions as far as 50 miles away from their home range to exploit seasonally abundant foods. Although yearling females tend to stay near their mother’s home range, subadult males disperse as much as 100 miles in search of a place to call home.

During the past 40 years, occupied bear range in Maine has expanded southward. During the 1970s, the area north of a line from Bangor westward to Skowhegan, Farmington, and Paris, along with all of Downeast Maine, was considered the primary bear range. South of that line, bears were considered rare to absent. Today, bears routinely occur as far south as northern York and Cumberland counties, along with most towns north of I-95. In addition, bears are now sometimes encountered in the Mid-coast and southern Maine coastal regions. This ingress of bears into southern Maine is associated with a gradual increase in the bear population, from less than 20,000 to more than 30,000 during that time. A considerable portion of Maine’s bear population already lives in close proximity with rural and suburban homeowners, farmers, and woodlot owners.

Black bears are powerful animals weighing hundreds of pounds, capable of tearing and shredding rotted logs, beehives, camp doors, or breaking a calf’s neck with its forelegs and long claws. They have a predator’s teeth, with long canines and sharp premolars, along with powerful jaws. Bears normally lope along, but they are quick and agile, attaining speeds of 30 mph for short bursts. Bears are not teddy bears. When motivated by hunger, bears can be both a major nuisance and a danger to people.

Bear/human conflicts in Maine are usually associated with localized and/or temporary shortages of natural foods in the woods. Bears can cause extensive damage to agricultural crops such as corn, oats, and barley. In cultivated orchards, bears sometimes break branches from fruit-laden trees. Beehives are typically smashed when a hungry bear makes a meal of honey and bee larvae.

Home and camp owners are not exempt from marauding bears in search of a meal. Bears can be attracted to bird feeders, or edibles in trash containers. Bears will break into unoccupied homes or camps if they smell food. Tent campers are particularly vulnerable when hungry bears come to visit. States like Colorado, New Jersey, and Florida, which have severely restricted the hunting of bears and have subsequently experienced high bear populations in close proximity to people, have experienced numerous actual bear break-ins in inhabited homes. Question 1 would undoubtedly cause this situation in Maine.

Bears sometimes target livestock in Maine. These may include dairy and beef calves, sheep, hogs, poultry, or pets.

Predatory attacks by bears on humans, while uncommon, do happen, particularly by hungry bears that have lost their fear of humans. Two recent Maine attacks have been written up for outdoor publications, and in nearby Quebec a fatal predatory attack on a young woman occurred a few years ago. Another human fatality occurred in Tennessee around the same time, and this September a bear killed a young man in New Jersey. These fatal attacks occurred preserves or large parks where bears were protected, abundant, and no longer wary of humans. There have been other non-fatal attacks in other states, such as Florida, where anti-hunting restrictions allowed bear populations to increase dramatically.
Hungry bears can make short work of beehives. Gerry Lavigne photo.
Gary Shelton, a leading Canadian expert on bear attacks on humans, has studied a number of attacks in British Columbia since the early 1990s. He has stated repeatedly that this increase in attacks is a direct result of overprotection of bears and severe limitation of hunting opportunities due to anti-hunting groups, and subsequent uncontrolled growth in bear numbers. His statistics also show that black bears are the species most apt to make predatory attacks on people. He further states, “One of the most dangerous bears of either species (black or grizzly) is a bear just experiencing its first repeated exposure to humans.” (Bear Attacks: The Deadly Truth, p.239. Pogany Productions, 1998.) This is exactly what Mainers will experience if Question 1 passes and we lose the ability to manage our bear population.

Bear conflicts with people are currently relatively low in Maine, compared to the size of our bear population. However, recent trends show that the number of bear complaints is on the rise. The incidence of bear/human conflicts is probably related to bear abundance relative to availability of wild foods, and to the presence of people in occupied bear range. A growing bear population that routinely exceeds its wild food supply is a recipe for escalating bear/human conflicts.

If Question 1 passes, accelerated growth in Maine’s bear population will lead to increased dispersal of hungry bears into central and southern Maine. Because of higher human densities, bear/human conflicts will escalate in Maine’s southernmost towns. In our primary bear range, our inability to control bear populations will lead to more frequent conflicts, as the carrying capacity of the forest is consistently exceeded. When every year is a poor food year, hungry bears will routinely look to human habitations for sustenance. At that point, the black bear will have changed from a trophy game animal to a public nuisance – and a danger.
Gerry Lavigne,Wildlife Biologist
Gerry Lavigne has been involved with white-tailed deer and predator research in
Maine for 42 years, worked on DIFW’s Bear Study program, and is a leading
expert on deer, moose, coyote, and bear behavior.