In this Wednesday Aug. 1, 2007 file photo, a black bear walks across the ground in Lyme, New Hampshire. Credit: Cheryl Senter | AP

The debate about how to best manage Maine’s growing black bear population has often been clouded by politics rather than the best-available science.

With the largest black bear population on the east coast, now estimated to be as high as 36,000 according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (DIF&W), it is more important than ever to rely on studies rather than speculation.

It is encouraging that the state is working to better understand the impact of human food on Maine’s bear population; there needs to be follow through on that effort.

“Since most black bears in Maine are harvested with the use of bait, the question of whether anthropogenic foods contribute to the growth rate of the bear population has been raised,” reads a request for proposal (RFP) from DIF&W that sought to launch a study of the effects of human food on Maine’s bear population.

That RFP, initially posted in April with a June deadline for submissions, was later canceled by the state. But DIF&W officials say they will continue to explore the study, as they should.

Referendum campaigns about bear hunting practices here in Maine have featured millions of dollars in spending, legal action about whether state agencies can dedicate public resources to advocate for or against these campaigns and hyperbolic rhetoric from sportsmen’s groups and animal welfare advocates alike.

With that backdrop, it’s easy to take a cynical view of DIF&W’s decision to cancel the RFP, which the AP first reported on this week.

As noted in the AP story, animal welfare advocates see the food used by hunters for bait as a contributing factor in the growth of Maine’s bear population. The state needs to take steps to better understand whether or not that’s the case.

At first glance, the story left us wondering if the department is walking away from a study that could potentially lead to inconvenient findings for the state. After all, this is a department that caused controversy — some of it earned — for actively opposing the ultimately unsuccessful referendum in 2014 that would have banned bear baiting, trapping and hounding.

This editorial board also opposed that referendum. We recognize the longstanding role that hunting over bait has played in bear hunting and thus, bear management as well. But when we read that the DIF&W canceled the study RFP, we had questions. So far, the department is providing the right answers.

According to Wildlife Division Director Nathan Webb, the decision to cancel the RFP is not about slowing down the study but actually about speeding it up. The state only received one proposal from a researcher to conduct the study, Webb said in an interview with the BDN, and that proposal envisioned a three-year timeline. The department, according to Webb, is hoping to turn the study around in a year using existing bear hair samples that have already been collected.

“Although very solid, it wasn’t in line with our timetable,” Webb said about the one proposal received, noting that conducting the study is “still a top priority” and emphasizing that the RFP was canceled “in hopes of moving the project ahead more quickly.”

Webb hopes to have a clearer picture in the next four to six weeks about how the department will move forward — which could involve potentially reissuing the RFP or something similar. For now, the department will be conferring with researchers to get a sense of why certain groups didn’t submit proposals and if there are other ways the state should approach this study.

The state RFP webpage lists early 2022 as the next anticipated RFP release for the bear study, but Webb says the plan would be to release it again sometime this year.

“It allows us to reach out to the folks and have some conversations,” Webb added about canceling the initial RFP, while acknowledging that personnel changes within the department have also complicated the timing to a minor extent. “We’re very committed to doing this work… we just want to make sure it’s done well.”

Inland Fisheries and Wildlife officials say that this effort is still a priority. We’re willing to bear with them — for now. Canceling the RFP, given the one proposal that didn’t line up with the department’s preferred timeline, is reasonable. But DIF&W must be careful not to slow down this needed review.