Biologists discuss increasing bear populations at northeast conference

The growing black bear population in the northeast was a main topic of discussion at the Northeast Black Bear Technical Committee meeting on Aug. 27 and 28 in Front Royal, Virginia, according to a press release recently issued by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

For this annual two-day conference, Maine state bear biologists joined bear biologists from 16 states and six Canadian provinces to confer about a variety of bear-related topics and compare management strategies.

Photo courtesy of Sharon Fiedler

Photo courtesy of Sharon Fiedler

“Nearly all the northeast states are increasing hunting opportunities to try and control black bear numbers,” stated MDIF&W lead bear biologist Jennifer Vashon in the press release. “New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia all recently increased the length of their black bear hunting seasons. Connecticut is considering enacting a bear hunt, and Maryland has been increasing the number of bear permits available.”

In Maine, biologists estimate the black bear population has increased about 30 percent in the past 10 years. The total number of bears currently living in the state is believed to be more than 30,000.

The growing black bear population in Maine is a matter of concern for both sides of the debate over the upcoming referendum to ban the use of bait, dogs and traps in hunting bear in Maine. The referendum is slated to be Question 1 on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Proponents of the referendum to ban bear baiting, Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting, state that the use of bear bait is inflating the bear population in Maine.

In contrast, opponents of the referendum, Save Maine’s Bear Hunt and Management Programs, states that using bait, dogs and traps to hunt bear in Maine is necessary to control the bear population. Furthermore, if these hunting methods are banned, the population will continue to climb, and likely at an increased rate.

Recently, the MDIF&W — the department responsible for managing the state’s black bear population and addressing bear nuisance problems — stated its website and in multiple online videos that it stands in opposition to the referendum.

“Dealing with increasing nuisance conflicts is a priority for most eastern states,” said Vashon, who attended the Northeast Black Bear Technical Committee meeting with fellow DIF&W bear biologist Randy Cross. “The committee is currently evaluating if increasing hunting opportunity around urban areas can alleviate conflicts. Initial findings indicate that increased hunting around urban areas is effective at removing bears that cause problems in backyards.”

Other topics discussed during the two-day meeting include:

  • Bear population management strategies, including population estimates, modeling techniques and harvest strategies.
  • Developing a standard message for how to react in a bear-human encounter.
  • Standardized protocols for responding to bear attacks and the recent bear attack training received by the Southeast Black Bear Technical Committee.
  • Summarizing data on care and rehabilitation of orphaned cubs.
  • Ongoing predator-prey research about black bear and deer.

“The first day involves status reports from each state and province where bear managers highlight what is happening in their state, and then we hear from our working groups that are tasked with researching certain topic,” stated Cross in the press release.

Vashon noted that one of the more interesting topics for the working groups was the discussion concerning aversive conditioning of nuisance black bears, where bears are hazed or harassed in hopes that nuisance bear behavior won’t be repeated.

“What the group found was that there was no silver bullet or one tool that was effective, and that aversive conditioning is an effective short-term solution, especially when addressing an immediate public safety issue or when property damage is severe,” Vashon said. “That was the result of studies in three different states where biologists radio-collared nuisance bears and subjected them to aversive conditioning after a nuisance bear complaint.

One part that is particularly helpful to bear managers is feedback from the committee.

“These people know their subject and can give you feedback. It helps improve your program based upon the shared knowledge within the committee,” said Vashon.

The Northeast Black Bear Technical Committee first met in Maine in 2002 and has met every year since then. Vashon, Maine’s lead bear biologist, was the chair of the committee from 2007 to 2010. As chair, Vashon was instrumental in bringing the Eastern Black Bear Workshop to Maine in 2013.

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at