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BEAR BONES: Maine’s black bear biologists among nation’s elite
By Travis Barrett
Maine’s black bear biologists are leaders in their field, a fact only cemented with their recent work with both the Eastern Black Bear Workshop and Northeast Black Bear Technical Committee.
In early May, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologists Jennifer Vashon and Randy Cross traveled to Hendersonville, N.C., to participate in the 20th anniversary of the Eastern Black Bear Workshop. With more than 30 years of intensive black bear research taking place in the state, Vashon’s “Maine Black Bear Management” was a featured seminar at the four-day event.
“There is a great deal of respect out there for what Maine has done,” Cross said.
As well there should be.
Maine boasts the largest population of black bears in the continental United States. Yet while the state has so many black bears living in our midst, there are relatively few negative interactions with the species.
Not only do DIF&W wildlife biologists have to manage the black bear populations to afford the best opportunities for the state’s hunters, but it also weighs population numbers in an effort to minimize those same negative interactions with humans while providing viewing opportunities for the state’s avid wildlife watchers.
“We only have 4,000-5,000 resident bear hunters in Maine,” Cross said. “But we also have to serve the other 1.3 million people who don’t hunt bears.
“There are far more people affected by bears than actually hunt them. Most people don’t hunt them, obviously, but those people also have a strong interest in bears.”
Maine’s residents aren’t the only people with interest in the state’s bear populations. Bear biologists in other states keep a keen eye on the work the Department is doing.
“You really feel good about what we’re accomplishing in Maine, even with the limited resources we sometimes have,” Vashon said. “You realize that other states are saying, ‘We wish we had the amount of information that you have.’”
While some southern states have had to work hard just to recover a fading black bear population, Maine is one of only three states with long-term telemetry studies on bear population numbers. Minnesota and Tennessee are the others, though Maine stands alone with the number of long-term studies it has performed.
After 30 years, Maine has performed three long-term studies now.
“Some states are just trying to figure out how to manage their populations,” Vashon said. “But we went to the EBBW trying to figure out how we can improve on what we’ve already done – there are new technologies, new software, new programs out there.”
In 2013, Maine will host the Eastern Black Bear Workshop. The workshop meets every two years as an opportunity for the nation’s black bear biologists to get together and discuss different techniques for population modeling, management and data collection.
During the workshop, the Northeast Black Bear Technical Committee also meets. Sixteen states are part of that committee, on which Vashon serves as the chairperson.
Currently, the committee is developing a document which outlines how states are dealing with nuisance bears. Every management tool for black bears is on the table.
“There’s no ‘magic bullet’ technique,” Vashon said. “It does seem like the places having the most problems with bears are in the bigger (population) places. We have relatively few big places where there are black bears – Caribou, Presque Isle, etc. – and where our bear population is the greatest we have few people.
“We’re not like New Jersey or New York.”
When it comes time for other states to minimize their negative interactions with bear populations, they turn to Maine.
“That’s where Maine stands out,” Vashon said. “It’s in part because of our management history, and it’s in part because of our bear population. We’ve done a really good job in that area.”
But Vashon and Cross and other Department biologists who study black bears aren’t resting on their laurels. They continue to search for the best information and techniques available.
“The amount of black bear knowledge in those (conference) rooms is just astounding,” Cross said. “It’s an incredible resource once you get to know these people. You can make so much progress by really reaching out to someone who knows so much more than you do or has been working 8-10 years on something specific you have a question about.”
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