BASS HARBOR – This time of year, bears are awake and looking for food.
Though elusive, they are present on Mount Desert Island. According to Acadia National Park spokesperson Christie Anastasia, “there are black bears in and outside of the park, although we do not know the population size.”
A video posted on Facebook by Bass Harbor resident Dwayne Graham last month showed security camera footage of a large bear in his front yard at night. The bear approached, then attempted to eat, the camera.
“Please be careful, especially early morning and night,” Graham wrote on the community bulletin board, Bar Harbor Barter & Swap, where he posted his video.
Security cameras are not normally considered food. However, bears are attracted to people’s yards by the food that is there, according to Jennifer Vashon, a Biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
“Birdseed is the number one attractant of bears,” Vashon said in an interview with the Islander. Her department recommends not feeding birds from April to November, and bringing bird feeders in at night. “Store your birdseed in a secure building,” Vashon said, not one with open windows or unlatched doors that a bear could break into.
Other items that attract bears are grease from grills, small livestock and garbage.
“If you have curbside pickup,” Vashon said, “don’t put your garbage out the night before.” Bears are more comfortable roaming at night when humans are less likely to be around.
For grills, she recommends cleaning them immediately after use, and storing grease cups inside.
For small livestock, whether chickens or beehives, Vashon recommends enclosing them in a fence. “Electric fencing is really effective,” she said, as long as it is properly grounded. Traditional wire or chain-link fencing can also be used if it is six feet tall, rimmed with barbed wire, and extended two feet underground. This would keep a hungry bear from climbing over or digging under the fence.
The last recorded bear fatality in Maine occurred in the 1800s, Vashon said, when a bear frightened a horse, causing a child to fall off a wagon.
Black bear attacks are uncommon, according to Vashon. “Injuries in Maine are extremely rare,” she said, and most of them involve bear hunters.
Advice on what to do if you encounter a bear is different in Maine than it is in parts of the country where grizzly bears intermingle with black bears.
“In most encounters, bears will trot off,” Vashon said.
In the case of a surprise encounter in which you accidently come face to face with a bear, Vashon said, “the best thing to do is to slowly back up from the bear.”
Vashon recommends hiking in parties of two or more. By slowly backing away from a bear and staying together with your group, “usually that’s all you have to do,” she said.
However, a bear, if threatened, may “bluff-charge.” In that case, Vachon recommends making noise and looking as big as possible.
In the rare case of an actual bear attack, Vashon advised, “Stand your ground and fight back.” Some hikers carry a walking stick or bear pepper spray for that purpose, she said.
Bear attacks are rare because “typically, they are really shy,” Vashon noted.
Getting to know bears
Vashon has worked with bears across the state, monitoring them and doing radio collar studies. There are an estimated 35,000 bears in Maine, she said, which is the highest black bear population of any of the lower 48 states.
Despite the high concentration of bears, Mainers have relatively few complaints about them. Vashon said her office fields 500 to 800 bear complaints a year, which is less than in some neighboring New England states with less bears but more people.
Vashon said in her experience of working with bears, “whether they’re cubs or adults,” she said, “they’ll be shy. They will try to look smaller.”
To radio collar a bear, she said she will crawl into caves and sedate the mother bear to radio collar the cubs. “When you get close to bears, they have small eyes,” she said, a trait that makes them “look more gentle.”
The small eyes make for poor vision, which is the reason bears are often seen standing on their hind feet peering into the distance. Large ears and noses mean their hearing and smell are keener senses.
Signs that a bear has been in the area include scat, which is large like a cow patty, Vashon said, and are often full of seeds or berries in season. “They have a very diverse diet,” Vashon noted.
In spring, bears often climb aspen or birch trees to eat the buds at the end of branches. “You’ll often see claw marks,” Vashon said.
Additionally, tracks are large and can be easily identified in sandy soil.
Black bears are primarily found in northern and western Maine, extending as far east as Ellsworth. “We don’t know a lot about black bears on the island, except for [occasional] reports,” said Vashon.
To report a bear sighting, call the regional game warden office in Jonesboro at 434-5927.