BANGOR, Maine — Earlier this year, wildlife biologist Randy Cross predicted that a relative lack of natural foods would make bears more eager to approach baited stands come bear season, and that equation could result in an advantage for the hunters.

With less than two weeks left in the state’s season for hunting bears over bait, that appears to have been the case, Cross said.

About 3,000 bears are typically shot by hunters each year, and as of Wednesday, that number sat at 2,157. And the hunt started out with a bang: Youth Bear Day hunters tagged 63 bears on Aug. 25, compared with the 23 taken by junior hunters on their special day a year ago.

“As I expected, the season has started off really well,” said Cross, the longtime crew leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s bear study. “There’s been really good activity [at the baits].”

Credit: Courtesy of Tylor Kelly's Camps

Up in Allagash, the folks at Tylor Kelly’s Camps will vouch for Cross’ assessment on the bears’ eagerness to raid bait sites. Sue Underhill Kelly said bears have been consistently hitting baits since the beginning of the season, and on Wednesday morning, one of the outfitter’s hunters bagged the largest bear in its 35-year history.

The bear — nicknamed “Barrel Crusher” — weighed 552 pounds, live weight, and was shot by hunter Pat Saling of Ohio. Saling was working with houndsman Mike Hubbard and Hubbard’s dogs when he bagged the massive bear.

“Barrel Crusher was on the bait at 12:30 a.m. and the dogs were able to take the track even though it was old. We dropped the dogs about 6 a.m. and had him within a couple hours,” Wade Kelly said in an email. “These smart old bears only visit the baits at night, hounds are usually the only way to get them.”

Maine’s bear season over bait runs from Aug. 27 until Sept. 22 this year. Hunting with dogs is allowed from Sept. 10 through Oct. 26, and trapping season for bears stretches from Sept. 1 to Oct. 31. The general hunting season for bears (without using bait or dogs) runs from Aug. 27 to Nov. 24.

Cross said the bulk of bears shot each year — about 75 percent of the total — are taken by those hunting over bait.

Credit: Courtesy of Tylor Kelly's Camps

The mechanisms at work are complex, and can sound confusing. It makes sense that bears would seek human-provided food if their own sources of food aren’t available, but it seems to make little sense that the bears hunters are shooting are fatter than they would be during a year with more abundant food.

But that’s the case.

During a year when there’s plenty of food on the landscape, bears process their chow a lot differently, Cross said.

“What happens is, all these bears continue to put their energy from their food toward skeletal growth and muscular growth,” Cross said. “All the young males are growing for as long as possible, and then at some point, they switch over to from the food going toward growth to them putting on fat for the winter.”

And in years when there’s not as much food available, bears begin packing on fat much earlier, anticipating what Cross calls “an early den year.”

That’s what’s happening this year, he said, and that’s why hunters are seeing fat bears with thick, luxurious pelts.

“I get the same calls every other year, [when food isn’t as plentiful],” Cross said. “Someone saw in the paper that food was limited this year and [they say] I’m full of it because their bears are fat.”

Cross said he understands why some people don’t think his explanation makes sense.

“It’s terribly hard to wrap your head around. A lot of the things are just so counterintuitive when you’re talking about bears,” Cross said.

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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...