Black Bears Among Us

Black Bear Cub

Black Bear Cub in Kittery 2012

 Black Bears

Bear tracks fascinate me, when I find a set I wonder where the animal came from, where it was going and where is the bear now?  In each of the picture of a track stood a bear 24-48 hours before I stood in that same place.  Just because we don’t see bears, doesn’t mean they are not near.  Using their sense of smell and hearing bears quickly disappear before we can get a glimpse.

I’ve been alerted on occasion by one of the many different vocalizations a bear makes when it senses something is near. A bear might grunt, growl, snap its teeth, snort or woof.  Or, according to @Dawn L Brown of Second Chance Wildlife, bears can also be silent as a ghost and you won’t know a bear is nearby.

In spring when the sow is just out of the den with her cubs I am much more alert when I meander through the woods. Females can and will be very aggressive if they feel the cubs are in any danger. She may send them up a tree, make noises and possibly chase off any threat.

Females have cubs every other year. The cubs are born in the den during the winter months and although they do den again with the sow the following winter, they are able to fend for themselves should they become separated from the mother. Male bears are the biggest threat to cubs. Mature males will kill the cub thus the mother bear keeps close tabs on her young until they come out of the den the second spring, when she herself will drive them off. 

This is a vulnerable time for the cubs as she seeks out a mate.  An interesting fact, bears have delayed implant of the fertilized egg(s) which are reabsorbed if she goes into the den the following fall with low body weight, not able to support herself and nurse the new cubs.

The population of black bear in Maine is increasing and currently estimated to be about 30,000 bears, up from 23,000 in 2004.  Maine has the highest population of black bears of any state in the lower 48.  Their numbers are increasing because Maine has the habitat that meets their needs and black bears do not have any natural predators.

The ecological carrying capacity of the variety of habitats in Maine that a black bear can live in, and the adaptations they have developed, help them to survive and thrive: they are omnivores, forage in trees as well as on the ground, and do not seek food sources during the winter months.

Black Bears are most often black, or can also be a cinnamon brown color.  The average weight of a mature bear is about 150 – 200 pounds but they can reach twice that size. The skull of this animal says many things about its lifestyle. Being omnivores their diet is both plant material and animal flesh. They share this trait with canines, opossums, raccoons and pigs.

When bears come out of the den in spring, their fat reserves are low. Each animal has lost up to 20-30% of its body weight from the previous fall and may not eaten for up to six months!  They feed on emerging green leaves in the tree tops but will also forage beneath the branches for last year’s remaining nuts or visit a backyard bird feeder filled with seed.

Once fruit and berries begin to ripen, black bears often leave a well worn path to and from a berry patch. It isn’t uncommon to find a large pile of scat full of berry seeds. Then in fall, black bears search for acorns, beechnuts and apples. Throughout the season, bears will eat insects such as ants and grasshoppers and of course honey! In Maine’s blueberry barrens, the bee hives are secured with electric fencing to keep the black bears away.

A black bear will search out any opportunity to fill its calorie needs to gain weight before going into the den. This can also mean dumpsters, coolers or unsecured livestock feed. It is important to take precautions to discourage black bears from becoming a nuisance.

Humans and bears have not always shared a peaceful existence in Maine. Bears were considered nuisance animals and had a bounty on them until 1957. Jobbers, early versions of today’s logging companies, hired trappers throughout the timberlands to destroy black bears that preyed on the work horses used to pull logs and timber out of the woods. Black bears were also a nuisance to farmers, eating agricultural crops and killing livestock.

There isn’t any data on the population of bears back in the day of bounty hunting. Nor is there research reports that might explain why the predatory tendencies of bears appear less today than 60 years ago. IF&W began their current management program in 1990 and have collected significant data since that time. The Department is responsible to oversee the protection and management of wildlife within the state. It has the ability to change harvest season dates, increase or reduce the number of permits sold and to change the areas where hunting can occur while enforcing current hunting laws. The current methods of harvesting black bear are baiting, hounds, and trapping  to control and maintain the well being of the black bear population and ensure it does not become a nuisance predator.

This weekend, black bears don’t need a weather forecast to know of the coming winter white stuff.  They will feed up on any remaining nutrition that is available and will find a place to lay down, it may be a hollowed out tree, a brush pile or even beneath a building.  Black bears have been in the news feeds the past few weeks, one animal was seen near a school in the mid-state area, another was in a residential dooryard eating from the apple tree, there was one in an upscale neighborhood in York County, and one was in a dumpster at a senior housing apartment complex.  This isn’t the only reason black bears are making headlines.  Question 1 on Tuesday’s ballot is asking voters if they want to eliminate the currently used methods of harvesting black bear in Maine.

Maine Nature News is opposed to Question 1.  In considering what is fair for the black bear, providing habitat that can sustain a healthy population of animals which is free from disease and malnutrition, and that will remain wild and free without becoming public nuisances.