After 30 Years As Maine Bear Biologist, What Has
Randy Cross Learned About These Complex Critters?
By V. Paul Reynolds
Maine state bear biologist Randy Cross has probably handled and seen up close as many black bears as any man in North America. Two reasons. First, he has been at it for 31 years. Second, Maine has one of the largest black bear populations of any state in the country - somewhere in the vicinity of 30,000, possibly as many as 36,000.
We talked with Randy recently on my Sunday night radio program, Maine Outdoors, which airs Sunday nights at 7 p.m. on the Voice of Maine News-Talk Network ( 101.3 and 103.9 FM).
Maine Outdoors: What has impressed you most about the bears?
Randy: Their complexity, intelligence and adaptibility. Unlike other mammals, their diet can be unpredictable.
Maine Outdoors: Do we have more bears in Maine than we did, say, 30 years ago?
Randy: Yes, I'd say so. More of them and healthier. Both their numbers and their range have increased in the past decade. This is attributable, I think, to changing weather patterns and improved bear habitat.
Maine Outdoors: How far do bears range?
Randy: Females don't wander much beyond four miles from where they are born. Males are hard to predict and they can cover a lot of land.
Maine Outdoors: I recall a winter bear den visit when I watched you in action, watched you crawl in a den and drag out a sow with cubs for tagging. I thought you were crazy! Have you had any bad encounters with bears?
Randy: Not really. I have been bitten by younger bears. Bears let you know when you have stepped beyond the margin, but I have been continually amazed at the restraint shown by bears over the years. Going into a bear's den is somewhat routine, but you never really know, so it can be pretty exciting, especially if you go in on a bear not yet tranquilized. There's no groginess.They wake us easily.
Maine Outdoors: Are bears near-sighted, or is that a myth? I've had bears look at me in a treestand, and they don't seem alarmed as long as I'm still and the wind is in my favor.
Randy: Well, I don't think the detail is there, but they are quick to discern movement.
Maine Outdoors: Do you think that bears take as many young deer as coyotes?
Randy: We are really not sure how much bear predation there is on deer. A Pennsylvania study suggested that there is a lot, but that state is not a valid comparison to Maine for a number of reasons. A New Brunswick study suggests that bear kill quite a few fawns, and it's hard to deny that bears kill young deer. They are good at finding the most calories for the least effort. I'd say it is possible that bears in Maine take as many fawns as coyotes.
Maine Outdoors: Bear complaints are twice what they were last year in Maine. What's going on?
Randy: Well, the early spring put them in a super-feeding mode, and I think that the natural food is down. Bears take more chances when they are hungry.
Maine Outdoors: Would you have any problem with a spring bear hunt in Maine. Are there any advantages for you as far as collecting bear data?
Randy: No, I would not oppose a spring bear hunt. For a bear manager, a spring hunt can be a precise and powerful tool. Success rates are high ( in a spring hunt) and very predictable, unlike the fall bear harvest.
Maine Outdoors: Now the Passamaquoddies and the Penobscots conduct a legal spring bear hunt, right?
Randy: Yes, and this spring's tribal bear hunt was the most successful ever.
Maine Outdoors: As you indicated earlier, the black bear is a remarkable animal that has impressed you during your years of study. Can you expand on that?
Randy: The hibernation process is pretty amazing, when you realize that a sow, for example, can spend 6 months in a den and, despite a lowered body temperature and heart rate, can still give birth and provide milk for the cubs.
Maine Outdoors: You mentioned that when you crawl in a bear's den that your heart rate goes up along with the bear's. How do you know that the bear's heart rate goes up?
Randy: You can hear it! When you are in there with a sleeping bear in a den rock cave, the acoustics are good. You can hear the bear's breathing and heart beat, as well as your own. When the waking bear's slow heart beat begins to pick up, it torques you up, too!
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program "Maine Outdoors" heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WQVM-FM 101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and his new book is "A Maine Deer Hunter's Logbook."
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