Maine Black Bears | Yankee Classic
To see one of Maine’s black bears leave its den is as breathtaking and suspenseful as witnessing a birth. First the pointed head, the round burly shoulders beautifully glossy with winter’s coat, then the haunches, ready to leap away. Stricken with alarm, Harry snags on the net. He has lost half his weight since September (“Too much weight,” Hugie worries) and weighs only 85 pounds. (“We grow up thinking bears weigh 600 pounds,” Hugie says.)
In a few minutes the sedative takes hold. Harry’s eyes become as glassy as marbles. His tongue darts in and out like a lizard’s. He needs a sleeping bag to protect him from the cold. It takes nearly an hour for Hugie and his two assistants to complete their work with Harry. Bright red tape is wrapped around his collar, in the hope that a hunter will see the collar and spare Harry for research. One season’s data on Harry will cost $5000. The collar is tightened around the thinned neck — more than once Hugie has trailed the pulsing in his earphones to find a collar dangling from a branch. In the spring Hugie will mount antennas on the wing struts of his single-engine Cessna. He will fly eight hours a day over these woods, earphones on, maps on his lap, charting the wanderings of Harry and his other bears.
“The key is to understand habitat needs,” Hugie says. “Then we can start to preserve it.”
Hugie wonders if Harry will live to see another winter. In the spring his extreme starvation will cause him to wander ceaselessly in search of the young grasses that, except for carrion, are the only source of food. It is in the spring when the bear, desperately driven by hunger, will most likely conflict with man, hunger overruling caution. Last spring a black bear killed three teenagers in a Quebec National Park as they returned from a fishing trip with the fish stuffed in coat pockets. Bear hunters set bait in the spring, potatoes and molasses, scraps of meat, and wait.
Hugie compares replacing a bear in its den as “trying to close an overstuffed suitcase.” Sometimes when pushing fails, he lays the bear on a stretcher, tilts it, and slides the bear home. Harry is sprayed with a mild perfume to “remove the stench of humans.” Hugie wants Harry to awaken in his den, suffering from nothing worse than a bad dream. If he remembers that his den is no longer sacrosanct he is likely to seek another.
With Harry safely inside, the den is camouflaged with evergreen boughs and smoothed with snow. The equipment is loaded back on the toboggan, and the researchers quietly leave the forest to Harry and his dreams and the steady snow blowing from the trees onto the base of the tall white pine.
When Roy Hugie goes alone to work on bear he carries no weapon. He takes instead his German shepherd, Bucky, who licks the faces of sedated bears. He trusts the bear’s lack of aggression, and he trusts a lifetime of experience with wildlife. The son of a forest ranger, Hugie grew up in the backyard of the Cash National Forest in Utah. “I spent so much time hiking and fishing in the mountains it’s a wonder I got through school.” At 17 years of age he was guiding hunters in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming.
Once while bugling elk he panicked, sensing the tables had turned and the elk were chasing him. Bounding through the woods, he leaped over a fallen log and landed on a sleeping black bear. The bear gave chase, “until she felt she’d made her point,” then lost interest.
He has been charged by females whose cubs are whining in his traps. They snarl, pop their teeth, whoosh air through their teeth, “until you swear you’ve breathed your last,” but they always stop 15 feet short.
His friend and Ph.D. adviser at the University of Montana is Charles Jonkle, world-famous bear authority. “He keeps telling me to watch it, that I take too many chances,” says Hugie. “ ‘There’s a bear out there who’s going to crunch you,’ Jonkle tells me. I just haven’t met him yet. If I were primarily concerned with safety I wouldn’t have started this project.”
When he was eight Hugie washed a beat-up single-engine plane for a man who in return took him for a ride. There were no doors on the plane and they took off from a dirt field. Whenever he saved $5 thereafter he would race to the airfield, not telling his family. Today one of the few wildlife biologists in the country who is also an experienced bush pilot (which prompted the Smithsonian to offer him a Malaysian tiger study), Hugie is happiest when he can fly and study wildlife at the same time.
From aerial tracking Hugie has learned that there are sharp differences in home ranges for male and female black bears. While a male may require 80 square miles, a female will be satisfied to stay within a four- to ten-mile range. He warns that concentration on small hunting areas may wipe out breeding females. His most remarkable encounter with a bear came from his airplane. He had dropped low over a meadow to observe a bear feeding on the grasses. The bear reared high. As the plane passed over him the bear clawed, asserting his dominance, clawed again, refusing to run.
Two maps hang from a wall in Hugie’s cramped office near the campus of the University of Maine at Orono. They represent radio locations of bears in his two distinct outdoor laboratories. Bears will roam far and wide if their home range lies in an area marked by heavy hunting, agricultural activity, and an interstate highway slicing through its center. Of the bears Hugie has tagged here 16 percent will be shot by hunters.
North of this 140-square-mile area is another, equal in size. Except for some timber roads, this area is almost devoid of human activity. Hugie is learning how bears manage with minimal interference from man. There are few places in the East where this is possible. Bears here wander half the distances of those 100 miles south. Only 3 percent will be shot. is Hugie’s theory that dominant bears force yearlings from the area, and that many of the bears eventually shot in southern Maine were born here. In time he hopes to know if this is true.
One Ear is somewhere just ahead, Hugie keeps telling his companions. He is sure of it. One Ear is an irascible bear who’d survived 19 years in a state where a 10-year-old bear is long-lived. One Ear had stumbled into Hugie’s trap the previous June, looking, says Hugie, “for his last free meal.” His face and shoulders were a mass of scabs where claws had raked, and he was ripped across the stomach — an obvious loser in breeding season. “I thought he would be dead within a week,” Hugie says. Five times that summer One Ear was located from the air, always in remote areas. Then for three months he disappeared. No matter where Hugie flew, he could not hear One Ear’s transmitter. “He was a secret even to us,” Hugie said. “Finally after denning time One Ear’s transmitting signal was heard coming from a wild, high corner of Baxter Park.”