Last fall, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife staff contacted bear biologists from Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Massachusetts to discuss the impact of public referendums that limited hunting techniques for black bears in their state. Maine faces a similar referendum this fall, and we wanted to know what happened to the bear population in those states after the referendum passed.
We asked each state biologist a series of questions related to black bear management in their state, their agency's role in the state referendum, and the social and economic concerns about the referendum. We also gathered data on past bear seasons, present laws, regulations and season dates for these states. The following document contains a state-by-state account on the ballot initiatives, a written summary of the main points, and a discussion on their applicability to Maine's current referendum.
Due to space limitations, accompanying charts, and the list of questions have not been included with the text of this report. For the complete list of questions, the accompanying charts and more information concerning bears in Maine, please visit our website at www.mefishwildlife.com.
In 1989, prior to the referendum, Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW) restricted the number of bear licenses during the spring season and shortened the spring bear season in response to the public's concern that cubs may be orphaned during the spring hunt. Spring and fall bear harvest rates during this period (1989-92) averaged 491 bears. Prior to 1989, spring and fall bear harvest averaged 609 bears.
In response to the loss of the spring season, CDOW more than doubled the length of the fall season by adding a limited permit September bear season. Hunter participation remained stable for 1-2 years following the initiative, however harvest levels declined by 33% initially. The decline in bear harvest levels was a result of declining hunter success rates. Success rates averaged 14% for bear hunters when bait and hounds were legal hunting methods and declined to an average of 6% when bait and hounds were banned. By 1995, bear hunter numbers doubled, allowing bear harvest levels to return to pre-referendum levels (516 bears from 1995-98). Interest in bear hunting has continued to increase (annual avg. 12,473 hunters 1999-03) and harvest has exceeded pre-referendum levels in recent years (annual avg. 804 bears from 1999-03), although success rates have remained lower.
Since the passage of the referendum, bear population estimates have increased by 20-27%. In 1993, there were an estimated 10,000 to 11,000 bears in Colorado; by 2002, managers revised bear population estimates to 12,000-14,000 bears. Population estimates are derived from 3 short-term radiotelemetry studies in Colorado. The revised population estimate may be an artifact of more accurate density estimates and vegetation correlations derived from telemetry studies, rather than an increase in the bear population. CDOW managers, however, felt that the black bear population was increasing prior to the initiative and continued to increase until the recent 4 years of severe drought conditions.
CDOW has experienced an increase in nuisance complaints, bear vehicle collisions, and bear related injuries to campers and feels the increase is related to 4 years of drought conditions that have reduced natural food availability, and increasing human and bear populations. Colorado's urban population has grown by 1 million since 1989. These factors have lowered the social and biological carrying capacity of bears in Colorado. As a result, lethal removal of nuisance bears has increased nearly 5-fold, from an average of 33 bears in 1989-1991 to an average of 158 bears in 2000-2002.
CDOW was not allowed to take a position on the bear referendum; however, Colorado's Wildlife Commission opposed the referendum. CDOW could provide factual information on bear biology and management to the public during the ballot initiative debate. At the time of the referendum, a management plan was in preparation, although the public was not involved in the process. Following the passage of the bear hunting referendum, the draft management plan was redrafted to account for changes in management. The bear management plan was finalized in 2000 and management goals were to provide hunting opportunity and reduce bear nuisance complaints.
Hunting conditions in Colorado differ considerably from hunting conditions in Maine, where topography can assist hunters in spotting bears. Bears in Colorado use berry and nut producing stands (e.g. shrub-oakbrush and limber pine stands) in the fall. This habitat can be dense, but the use of high ground and binoculars improves visibility for spot and stalk hunting. In Maine, bears may use beech ridges following a heavy beechnut crop, but are generally concealed in dense forests. Spot hunting and stalking bears is more difficult in Maine.
Oregon Fish &Wildlife (OF&W) increased the length of the fall season (23 days in eastern part of the state and 50 days in the western part of the state) and added multiple bag limits (2-4 bears depending on the area) in response to the passage of the referendum. Interest in bear hunting has increased in recent years with the increased concern for human safety and the desire to protect game species, primarily deer and elk. As a result, bear tags sales increased by 38% between 1994 and 1997. In 1998, 5 years following the passage of the referendum, a new hunting license was issued. This license (sportsman package) reduced license and tag fees by 18% by allowing hunters to purchase hunting and fishing licenses and all big game (e.g., bear, turkey, deer, elk) and fishing permits in a single package. As a result of this new license, bear tag sales have nearly doubled. This increase in tag sales does not necessarily reflect an increase in hunters pursuing bears, but increases the opportunity for incidental take of bears. Despite an increase in hunter participation and opportunities for incidental take of bears, black bear harvest levels have declined by 19% since the passage of the referendum. Non-resident hunters accounted for an insignificant portion of bear hunters prior to and after the referendum. By state statue, non-resident hunters can not exceed 3% of resident bear hunter numbers.
The public perceives that the bear population has exploded, and human safety is a big concern. However, data indicate the population is stable to increasing, but OF&W does not have adequate techniques for estimating bear population numbers. Research has been limited to a few short-term radiotelemetry studies, and age-structure of the bear harvest is used as an indicator of population health.
Bear nuisance complaints have increased since passage of the referendum. OF&W attributes the increase in nuisance complaints to increased awareness of bears and bear conflicts as a result of the referendum. Complaints are highest in years when natural foods are low. Nuisance bear complaints are related to concerns for human safety (increased from 0 in 1992 to 20 complaints in 1999) and damage to timber or agricultural crops. Property owners are allowed to shoot or trap a bear if it is causing a conflict. In 1999, 269 bears involved in nuisance activities were destroyed.
OF&W was allowed to form a position and was opposed to the ballot initiative, as this initiative would limit bear management tools and potentially lead to a rise in conflict between bears and people. OF&W was able to provide factual biological information to the public, but only when this information was requested. A bear management plan was in place at the time of the referendum, but specific goals and objectives were not identified. The management plan focused on monitoring age structure of harvested bears to determine if the bear population was being over-harvested, but did not identify a course of action for responding to over-harvest. The public has not been involved in the planning process. Oregon's bear biologist felt that biological information was not important when addressing referendum issues, but knowledge of human dimension issues and human dimension tools are instrumental in addressing future referendums in Oregon.
In western Oregon, bear habitat is similar to Maine with dense forested habitats. However, in eastern Oregon forested habitats are more open due to drier conditions: open hillsides and forested habitat with an open understory. Bear hunters have a higher success rate in the more open habitats found in the eastern portion of the state. As a result, bear hunting seasons are longer in western Oregon and up to 4 bears can be harvested in southwestern Oregon. Bear hunter success rates with spot and stalk techniques averaged 3.4%.
Following the loss of hound hunting, Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife (MADFW) did not readjust hunting regulations as harvest objectives (<5% of the bear population or 49-59 bears) were being met. Bear harvest levels remained stable following the ballot initiative as still-hunting bears (hunting from elevated tree stands or ground stands) was an effective and popular bear hunting technique prior to the referendum. Still-hunting accounted for 51-63% of the bear harvest. Hunters using hounds to hunt bears accounted for 27-31% of the bear harvest and hunters that stalked bears accounted for 6-20% of harvested bear. Prior to the referendum still-hunter and hound-hunter success rates were 4.5% and 25%, respectively. Overall hunter success rates declined to approximately 3.7% with the loss of hounds.
The bear population in Massachusetts has doubled in the last 10 years. Massachusetts' biologists, determined that a harvest objective of <5% of the bear population was ineffective at stabilizing the bear population and they adjusted the harvest objective to10% of the bear population or 200 bears. To increase harvest levels, MADFW doubled the length of the bear-hunting season (from 12 to 23 days) in 2000. Harvest during the 2000-2003 seasons averaged only 113 bears. MADFW believes it is unlikely that they can reduce bear populations in Massachusetts, given the existing limitations on hunting methodology, hunter participation, and land access. However, they feel they can probably slow population growth, but to what extent is uncertain.
Black bear population estimates in Massachusetts are based on long-term research efforts that were initiated in 1980 and continue today. The bear population prior to the referendum was estimated at 975-1,175 bears in 1992.
By 1998, the bear population had grown to an estimated 1,750-1,800 bears. MADFW has a preliminary 2003 population estimate of 2,000 bears, however additional data are needed to refine the estimate. In Massachusetts, bear conflicts with people have increased by a minimum of 8-10% annually and wildlife officials attribute this rise to increasing bear populations. Prior to the referendum, nuisance bear complaints were related primarily to agricultural crop damage. Since 1996, residential and campground complaints have greatly exceeded agricultural complaints; while part of this increase is related to improved reporting, the trend is towards an increase in residential problems. Property owners in Massachusetts are allowed to kill a bear causing damage or threatening human safety, but they are required to report the incident to MADFW officials.
MADFW was opposed to the bear referendum and was able to provide biological data to the public during the hunting debate. The department does not have a formal bear management plan, but has established a bear harvest goal. The public has not been involved in setting harvest objectives with the exception of testimony at public hearings and public forums sponsored by the legislature with MADFW participation.
In Massachusetts, bears primarily use mature hardwood stands to forage on acorns, beechnuts, and other nuts and/or agricultural fields to forage on corn crops in the fall. The majority of hunters use elevated tree stands in open hardwood stands or at the edge of agricultural fields to spot bears. In Massachusetts's forested habitat, approximately 4% of hunters using these techniques are successful. Non-resident hunters accounted for an insignificant portion of successful bear hunters (3-8%) in Massachusetts.
Washington Division of Fish and Wildlife (WDF&W) in response to the loss of bait and hounds to hunt bears: 1) lengthened the fall hunting season in western WA; 2) allowed deer and elk hunters to harvest bears incidental to deer and elk, which was not previously allowed; 3) reduced the cost of a bear permit from $27.00 to $10.00 to increase hunter participation; and 4) increased bag limits from 1 to 2 bears in western Washington. Due to the liberalization of the hunting regulations, hunter participation increased 5-fold resulting in a stable harvest level. Harvest levels following the initiative averaged 1,337 bears annually (1997-02). Prior to 1997, bear harvest levels averaged 1,322 bears annually. With the loss of bait and hounds for hunting black bears, hunter success rates have decreased. Prior to the referendum, a successful bear hunter spent an average of 100 days hunting bears. After the referendum, a successful bear hunter spent an average of 450 days hunting bears. Non-resident hunters did not contribute significantly to bear hunter numbers prior to or after the bear referendum.
The bear population (25,000-30,000) is stable to increasing and nuisance complaints have increased. Bear population estimates before and after the referendum were based on population reconstruction from harvest data, thus population estimates should be viewed cautiously. A radiotelemetry study has recently been initiated to improve estimates. The increase in nuisance bear complaints is related to improved reporting of nuisance complaints and increasing human densities. Washington has the second highest human population of 11 western states and human populations are growing at record levels. Nuisance bear complaints are related to concerns for human safety, depredation of livestock, and damage to timber. WDF&W responds to nuisance bear complaints based on a tier of risk. Lethal removal of bears is an option for nuisance complaints that are considered medium to high risk.
WDF&W was not allowed to form a position on the ballot initiative, but was able to provide factual biological and nuisance data to the public. WDF&W did not have a bear management plan at the time of the referendum. Following the passage of the bear referendum, WDF&W developed a bear management plan (2003) and involved the public in the process. Harvest data suggests hound and bait hunters were more selective in the harvest of male bears, as more female bears and cubs are taken in the harvest after the passage of the referendum. This change in harvest has made it more difficult for biologists to manage Washington's bear population.
Bear habitat in Washington is similar to Oregon with more open habitats in the eastern portion of the state. Western Washington's dense forested habitat is more similar to Maine's forest. The dense forest conditions reduces hunter's visibility and success rates, as a result, bear hunting seasons are longer and bag limits are higher (2 bears) in western Washington. An average of 5% of bear hunters using still-hunting or stalking are successful in harvesting a bear in Washington.
* At the time of the initiative, the public was not involved in bear management decisions in any of the states that faced bear referendums.Applicability to Maine
Hunting success rates declined significantly with the loss of baits and hounds. Thus, efforts to increase hunter participation were needed to maintain stable harvest levels in other states. In Maine, non-residents hunters purchase half of Maine's bear permits and 72% of the bears harvested in Maine from 1999-02 were by non-resident hunters. If Maine loses the opportunity to hunt bears with bait, non-resident bear hunters may consider New Hampshire, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, or Ontario for their future bear hunts where the use of bait to hunt bears is legal. None of the states that lost bear hunting ballot initiatives faced the loss of half of their bear hunters, as few non-resident hunters participated in bear hunting in those states. In Maine, it will be difficult to maintain our current level of hunter participation in bear hunts with the loss of non-resident hunters.
In Maine, hunters harvesting bears with the use of bait, hounds, or traps are required to purchase a bear permit. In 2002, 15,252 hunters purchased a bear permit. Approximately 25% of bear hunters using bait or hounds to harvest bears in Maine are successful. Success rates for bear hunters in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Massachusetts following the loss of bait and hounds to hunt bears declined to an average of 3.34%. If Maine success rate declines similar to Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Massachusetts we would need over 100,000 hunters participating in black bear hunts to harvest the 3,500 to 4,000 bears needed to stabilize Maine's bear population.
In many states, efforts to promote or allow the incidental take of bear by deer and/or elk hunters were responsible for increasing hunter participation. In Maine, deer hunters are already allowed to harvest bears incidental to deer hunting and are not required to purchase a bear permit (i.e. no fee). In Maine, ~230,000 hunters purchase a big-game license; approximately 175,000 of those hunters participate in deer hunts. Since 1982, we have been collecting information on bear harvest by method of take and hunting season (bear season or deer season). In 1982, the year with the highest bear harvest by deer hunters (214,000 participating in deer hunting), 603 bears were harvested for a success rate of 0.28% (1 bear/355 deer hunters). Deer hunter success rates for taking bears are highest in years with abundant nut crops, when bears enter the dens later and are available to deer hunters. The low success rate by deer hunters is likely attributed to the distribution of deer and bears in the state, the timing of the deer season, and the dense forested habitat that makes it difficult to see bears. Incidental harvest of bears by deer hunters will not compensate for less bears being taken by bait, hounds, or traps.
Maine's bear hunting regulations are already liberal (i.e., bear permits cost $5.00 for Maine residents and $25.00 for non-residents (1990-2002), 84 day bear season (Aug 25-Nov 30), deer hunters are allowed to harvest a bear), which limits MDIFW's options for increasing hunter participation to maintain harvest levels and meet Maine's bear population objective. The options that remain available are to extend the season and/or increase bag limits. However, our current season structure currently extends to the period when most bears have entered their winter dens; this leaves only a summer or spring bear season as an option for extending bear hunting opportunity. Summer and spring season have some drawbacks; the public is often opposed to a spring season hunt because cubs may be orphaned when still dependent on their mothers, and hunters are less receptive to summer hunts as pelts are not prime and warm temperatures can spoil the meat. Increasing bag limits are only effective if hunters have the opportunity to observe and harvest more than one bear. Hunter success rates with still-hunting and stalking techniques are low, thus increasing bag limits alone will have a limited impact on harvest levels.
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