A 246-pound female looks toward humans in Township 36 in this June 14, 2010, file photo. Credit: Bridget Brown / BDN

As Maine’s bear hunting season begins, wildlife officials expect the bears to be actively visiting bait sites because natural foods are in short supply. But with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic still raging, will the hunters still come?

That depends on who you ask.

Paul Laney, the owner of Laney’s Guide Service in Grand Lake Stream, is among the guides who are experiencing a boom in their business. Laney said he’ll guide hunters seeking bears over bait for three weeks, and chase bears with dogs for clients for six more weeks. And he likes what he’s been seeing.

“The bears have been really hammering the baits,” Laney said. “Should be a great year by all the signs I’m seeing.”

And Laney said he’ll be very busy for the next two months

“I have the highest amount of clients ever for my business,” Laney said. “Been at it 20 years and this year the phone calls and emails have been nonstop. I’m turning people away at this point.”

Laney said he’ll be observing all COVID-19 protocols recommended by the state in order to keep his client safe.

Don Kleiner, the executive director of the Maine Professional Guides Association, is also a guide who owns Maine Outdoors in Union. He has heard varied reports from association members.

“I am also hearing that business is very uneven for guides and lodges,” Kleiner said. “In my own business I expect to finish the season off about a third. Not great but survivable. There are others very close in distance to me who have done almost no business this summer. So far it appears that most of my bird hunters are still planning to come this fall.”

For others, this year is a struggle. Matt Whitegiver, who owns Eagle Mountain Guide Service in Township 24, said the pandemic has taken a toll on his business.

“I’m down 60 percent,” Whitegiver said. “In a normal year, we have 48 to 50 hunters [booked]. This year it’s 24.”

Whitegiver will be hosting his annual Special Operations and Wounded Warrior hunt, though, and that week is fully booked, he said.

And special precautions are being taken to address COVID-19.

“Every hunter has been instructed to get tested within 72 hours of arriving,” Whitegiver said. “Meals will be outdoors when possible.”

It makes sense that bear hunting would be an activity that would be disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, as nearly two-thirds of the successful bear hunters in recent years have come from out of state to enjoy the hunt.

In a 2018 wildlife report, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife said that 1,808 bears were taken by non-resident hunters, while in-state residents tagged 1,088 bears.

Because the bulk of the harvest comes from hunts over bait, that makes the services of registered Maine guides even more essential to a successful hunt. Of the 2,897 bears tagged in 2017, a total of 1,889 were taken by hunters who were using guides.

A further breakdown of that year’s hunt, by method used: 1,927 bears were shot over bait, 614 were taken with the aid of dogs, 126 were trapped, 87 were shot by hunters who were actively deer hunting at the time, and 37 were taken using spot-and-stalk techniques.

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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...