BANGOR, Maine — Randy Cross has been studying the state’s black bears for a long time, and each spring, he and his crew spend more than a month trapping bears that they’ll “enlist” into Maine’s long-running research project.

One thing he has learned over the years: Every season is different.

“I’ve trapped bears for 34 years, and most people would assume I’ve seen it all,” Cross said during a conversation in his subterranean office at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s Bangor headquarters. “I know better, because every trap season, there are surprises, things I’ve never seen. But this trap season was very unusual.”

The bear biologist and his crew set foothold snare traps in one of three research areas — one Down East, one just north of Old Town and another in Aroostook County — each year. After 34 years of doing so, Cross has accumulated plenty of data, and he generally knows what to expect.

This year, trapping in the Bradford Study Area north of Old Town from May 17 until June 23, Cross saw a few things he didn’t expect.

Among them: More adult females were captured than males; More bears were trapped in the area than had been trapped in the same locations a year before; and a rare chocolate-phase black bear, with a deep brown coat, was among the bears the team caught.

Cross said that in the Bradford area, with some traps being set as close as five miles from the city of Old Town’s outer boundary, catching bears is historically difficult.

He said more than 300 years of farming and European settlers has made the bears in the area avoid humans, who often viewed them as undesirable and tried to keep the animals off their farmland.

“The only bears that persisted in this area were bears that showed the highest human-avoidance behavior,” Cross said. “Over time, it’s sort of like selective breeding, in that you’re removing the [animals] that don’t pass the test, so to speak. Over time, that changes the nature of the whole population, behavior-wise.”

In the Down East, the bears are similar. In northern Maine’s study area, however, there wasn’t much settling and farming, and the bears remain naive and easier to catch, Cross said.

But this year, Cross and his team had no problem catching bears in the Bradford area, even after trapping in the same spots in 2015.

“We made 74 captures [in 2015] using almost the same grid as we did this year,” Cross said. “This year, we got 118. And typically, when you [work the same trap area two years in a row], when you go back, you’ve trained a lot of the bears not to play, not to come get trapped … normally, the captures go down, not up.”

So what caused the spike in captures this year? Desperate bears, Cross said.

“[Food availability] plays into it in a huge way. It’s the No. 1 thing,” Cross said. “We’re always competing with natural food [in order to entice a bear toward a trap]. We’re also competing with the bear’s human-avoidance behavior. If the natural food is in such a poor stage or state that they’re willing to take the risk to go to a place where there’s human activity, to try to get food, that [makes them more apt to be caught].”

Bears are primarily eating sedge at this time of year, and weeks of dry weather have made the roots of that swamp grass more brittle and tough to digest, Cross said. As the sedge became less nutritious, bears began to look for better options, and sometimes, the bait filled the bill.

For the first time ever, Cross said more female bears were caught in this spring’s season. Collars were put on 36 of those females, which brings the total of active collared bears in the study area to 52.

“It’s not random [that we caught more females]. There’s something going on, and it’s significant. It’s not chance,” Cross said. “I do think it [has to do with] relatively high cub survival [over the winter] and a lot of females raising cubs last summer.”

Those mother bears were trying to find food for their offspring, and often either the females or the yearlings were caught at several different bait sites during the trapping season.

“In doing so, they came as a family group at the beginning [of the season] because the cubs were still with them. They’re introducing the cubs, which we now call yearlings, to bait sites, and we made 47 captures of yearlings, including one yearling that we caught six times in 21 days at six different trap sites,” Cross said.

Cross said the mother bears led those yearlings to sites as natural food became more scarce.

“I really think that the physiological need [of the mother] is what drives it, and that need had not been seen at this level in many, many years,” Cross said. “This was the 18th time I’ve trapped Bradford, and I’ve never seen that kind of activity on bait.”

Another highlight was the capture of a 123-pound male bear that had brown fur instead of the traditional black. In some western states, observers may even have thought they were looking at a grizzly. Grizzlies don’t live in Maine, though, so its identification was simple.

“It’s a brown phase that we rarely see on the East Coast. Occasionally we see it in Maine. I would call it ‘chocolate’ color phase,” said Cross, who said he thought just 1 in 5,000 Maine bears would have similar coloration.

The trait is caused by a recessive gene, Cross said, but in places where bears live in more open areas — like in the western U.S. — off-color black bears are more common than they are here, where bears typically live in darker undergrowth and a black hue makes them harder to see.

But the coloring of the fur wasn’t the only thing that caught Cross’ eye.

“It’s definitely a uniquely colored bear, but I was very struck by the bear’s face,” he said. “Usually the muzzle is lighter than that, on any black bear. I’ve seen more chocolate- or dark chocolate-color phase bears in Maine than I have seen black-faced bears … I’ve trapped thousands of bears, and this is the only one I’ve ever caught that looks like this.”

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...