Classic: Maine's Black Bears
This Yankee Magazine Classic is from December 1978
Also, read a photographer’s account of his 2007 visit to Maine’s black bears.
There can be no talking now. The hearing acuity of a black bear mandates silence. Somewhere in this spruce forest in northern Maine dens a three-year-old black bear. He wears a collar equipped with a powerful radio transmitter that betrays his den site. Roy Hugie, listening to a pulsing loud and clear in the earphones clamped to his ears, knows the bear is near.
Hugie is a 32-year-old big game research biologist with the Maine Fish and Wildlife Department. For three years he has monitored black bears in Maine. His is the most extensive bear study ever carried on in New England, one of the most extensive, for that matter, in the country. There are 17 bears denning this winter wearing three-pound collars that will tell Hugie where, when, and possibly why they den where they do. In addition, another 200 bears roam the forests with ear tags firmly in place. Data on their ages (determined by tooth samples), weights, habitat preferences, home range areas, and ability to avoid hunters fill the files in Hugie’s office.
Each day Hugie says he learns something new about bears, which he calls “one of our most misunderstood and maligned animals.” Each day the mysteries soften a little. New questions arise, replacing ones just answered. Each day his respect for the black bear grows. The more he learns about bears the more he frets about man.
“With habitat loss and overhunting you can be out of business with bears four years before you know what’s happened,” Hugie says. “The margin of error with bears is very small. Their reproductive rate is small. If we guess wrong the bear could be beyond recovery very soon in most places.”
There are more black bears in Maine (about 8500) than anywhere east of the Mississippi. The decline of the bear elsewhere has brought hunters to Maine in ever-increasing numbers. Each year there are more bears killed in Maine, from 740 in 1974 to 1008 in 1976. It is Hugie’s belief that any further increase, coupled with the inevitability of shrinking habitat, will mean that the black bear is in serious trouble. But he needs facts to back him up. The sources of those facts he seeks now lie hidden in their forests, sleeping fitfully until May.
Roy Hugie has trekked for hours to reach a bear’s den. He wheels around in a small clearing. He paces quickly in a broad circle looking for signs he has come to trust. He relaxes and smiles, for the first time in a long while. He flings the earphones on the branch of a tree and jams the receiving antenna firmly in the snow. “There,” he says softly, and points to a tall white pine. At its base is a cavity where an immense root has been forced upwards. It is covered with snow. Only by straining can you see the faint trickle of steam vaporizing into the clear, cold day — the breath of a black bear.
Early New England Indians searched for the thin wisps of breath on icy days. If found on high, they cut down the tree. Flaming birch bark thrust into root cavities brought a bear with stinging eyes into the startling light and the spearpoint. Some hunters crawled into dens and clubbed the bear to death before it could rouse. Later, man regarded bears as vermin, like rats. Until 1957 in Maine, a hunter lucky or clever enough to find a denned sow with cubs could shoot the mother and cubs while they huddled together, deliver the snouts to Fish and Wildlife and collect $15 per snout.
Hugie crawls quietly to the mouth of the den and scoops the snow away. A 50-pound nylon net is secured to branches and packed with snow to form a canopy around the den. A syringe of ketamine hydrochloride is prepared and attached to the end of a three-foot-long jab stick. Hugie peers in and stares at the face of the bear he has named Harry. Harry trembles like a dog at the veterinarian’s office.
“The myth of the big, bad meat-eating bear dies hard,” Hugie says. “People expect the bear to charge from the den, grab everyone in sight, and claw them to pieces. Still you don’t take chances with bears; they are too unpredictable. You learn their critical distance and you keep to it. If people would let go of the myth of the bad black bear, they would find a remarkable animal.”
When he looks at a bear in winter Hugie says he never ceases to be amazed. For six months the bear does not eat, drink, or eliminate, yet its body temperature remains nearly normal. But when under duress it will fight with enormous strength even though it is in a state of chronic starvation.