Bear hunters who are headed into the woods this week for the start of the season may find themselves facing a dilemma.
Most hunters are hoping to catch a glimpse of a healthy adult bear, maybe even a big boar they’ve been targeting. Then again, they may not see anything at all.
Given that unpredictability, hunters could encounter a situation where they have to decide whether to shoot a female bear, or sow, accompanied by her cubs.
While some states have banned the practice, it is legal in Maine to shoot a sow accompanied by cubs or to harvest a cub. Although some folks are comfortable harvesting the adult bear, many hunters won’t take the shot if it will orphan the cubs.
The dilemma was posed recently by Steven Morneault of Littleton on the Maine Black Bear Hunting Facebook page. He admitted not having supported the practice in general, but suggested some information he saw about cub survival gave him pause.
“Might open a can of worms with this one,” Morneault posted. “Facts and real life experience over feelings would be preferable.”
Judging from the responses his post elicited, public opinion is emphatic and clearly favors allowing sows with cubs to walk away.
“I pass on sows with cubs no matter what,” Thomas Caltagirone Jr. said. “I did not get a bear last year because of that and I’m OK with that decision.”
Black bears are usually born in January, which means the cubs traveling with a sow in September are about 9 months old. They will return with their mother to the den for the winter.
Sows allow their offspring to remain with them until they go into estrus, or its breeding cycle, the following spring, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Prevailing wisdom is that cubs that den with their mother likely have a better chance of surviving the winter than those that don’t. Cubs orphaned when a sow is shot must fend for themselves, eating sufficient food to store enough fat to stave off the cold while spending the winter in the den.
“I don’t need a bear bad enough to orphan a cub,” Joseph Saracina of Berwick said.
However, there is evidence that cubs, even some released from captivity in the wild, are sometimes able to survive the winter.
Tim Daley, who said he has guided bear hunts in Maine and New Brunswick, had a dissenting opinion about shooting a sow — whether one with cubs or a solitary one that might be carrying eggs in preparation for the next breeding season.
“Let the biologists manage the bears with law,” Daley said. “If this is so unethical, the people on here should petition an end to shooting a sow with cubs.”
Daley also suggested that people should resist the urge to humanize bears.
“It’s not a momma and babies. It’s a sow with cubs,” he said. “They are not orphaned, they are independent.”
And while some guides also may view the situation as a matter of ethics, they have a vested interest in discouraging hunters fro, shooting sows to keep reproducing bears alive to maintain the population for their clients.
Phil Allen said he inadvertently shot a sow that had cubs during a hunt four years ago in Vermont. The cubs only appeared, scurrying into nearby trees, after he had taken his shot.
The cubs, it turned out, were nearly as large as the 135-pound sow, which biologists said was 18 years old and had produced seven litters of cubs.
“Knowing she didn’t have many more years in front of her made me feel better, but [I] wouldn’t shoot a sow with cubs again if I was given the choice,” Allen said.
Randy Cross, who for many years directed the wildlife department’s bear research, said there isn’t a tremendous amount of information on the topic because it’s so rare for a female with cubs to be harvested in the first place.
The wildlife department did monitor five cubs orphaned as the result of sows killed by vehicles during the fall, he said, and all of them made it through the following winter.
“Sample size is small, so not definitive,” Cross said. “Some cubs die before June the following spring during poor food years, even with their mother.”
Tracy Cyr of Milford suggested that the decision not to shoot a sow with cubs has added entertainment benefits.
“Once you watch a sow with a couple cubs around a bait you’re gonna realize how cool they really are. Then you’ll just enjoy watching them,” Cyr said.
The bear hunting season began Saturday with youth day for those ages 16 and under, while the regular season gets underway Monday.