Black Bear Hunting Prospects in New England

Black Bear Hunting Prospects in New England
In most of New England, there is an overabundance of bruins for those willing to get out there and hunt them. (Shutterstock image)

According to most estimates, some 45,000 bears now call New England home. That’s a pretty impressive number considering just a few decades ago it was about half that. The vast majority of bears live in Maine, but numbers in New Hampshire and Vermont have more than doubled since about 1990. In Massachusetts bear numbers are increasing by about eight-percent annually. Even Connecticut is home to a growing bear population, estimated at about 800 bears, up from just a handful two decades ago. Several attempts of late to establish a limited hunt in the Constitution State have proven unsuccessful.

Part of the reason for these increases is the declining number of hunters pursuing bears. In Maine, biologists would like to see at least 4,000 bears taken annually, but hunters have come nowhere close since 2005, barely taking about 3,000 annually.

Across the border in New Hampshire, biologists would like to reduce its bear population by about 30 percent over the next decade, but it seems doubtful that will happen. In Vermont, an early bear season was put in place a couple years ago to encourage more hunters to hit the woods. In Massachusetts, bear hunting is now allowed statewide and the season has been extended.

All this boils down to the fact that New England has lots of bears and fewer hunters pursuing them. With generous hunting seasons on the books, affordable over-the-counter licenses and permits readily available — there has never been a better time to get out and chase bears.

MAINE

Maine has lots of bears, about 35,000 by most estimates, up from 30,000 just five years ago but fewer hunters in recent years considering the long hunting season and number of bears. Part of the reason may be simple demographics, hunters getting older and no longer interested or able to hunt bears.

Resident and non-resident bear permit sales have declined from 10,964 in 2005 to 9,423 in 2016. According to license sales figures, there are also fewer young hunters taking their place. In 2000, 16,870 junior resident and non-resident junior hunting licenses were sold in Maine. That figure had dropped 12,791 in 2016.

Another factor may be the cost of licenses and permits to hunt bears, especially for non-resident hunters. Non-resident hunters have purchased more bear permits than residents every year since at least 2005. Along with a $75 bear permit, rifles hunters must purchase a $115 big-game license for a total of $190.

Archers save a few bucks purchasing an archery license at $75, but still need a bear permit. Crossbows have been legal during bear season for a few years now, but it will cost a steep penny. A non-resident crossbow permit costs $56 but the bear permit and a big game license or archery license are still required, totaling $236 or $206, respectively.

Additionally, while Maine residents can still hunt in November without any kind of bear permit, since 2008 non-resident hunters also need a special permit to hunt bear during the November deer season. Prior to that year no November permit was required for non-residents. The cost is an additional $41.

It might be coincidence, but the very next year overall non-resident bear license sales fell below 5,000 for the first time, the number of November permits sold declined and both have been declining ever since. And, if that is not enough, Sunday hunting is still prohibited.

Whatever the reason, Maine offers some of the finest bear hunting in the country. As always, there will be a long season this year. The baiting season will commence August 28, ending September 22. The hounding season will follow, starting September 10 ending in late October. The general season remains open to the end of the deer season on November 24.

In 2016, the most recent year harvest figures are available, Maine hunters took 2,859 bears. This year, as always, the take will depend on how many hunters hit the woods and abundance of natural foods. Year after year most bears are taken early in the season over bait, and during years of high soft and hard mast production, the number of bears taken over bait is generally lower than during years of low production when bears are roaming more and greater distances searching for food.

In recent years, bears have been taken in most of the state’s 16 counties, the exception being along the mid-coast, a good indication Maine’s bear population is not only growing, but increasing its range into historical regions of the state. If this year follows recent trends, Aroostook County will be the top producer, along with Penobscot, Piscataquis, Somerset and Washington Counties filling out the top five, not always or necessarily in that order.

The western mountain counties of Franklin and Oxford, and Hancock County also produce their share. In fact, looking at the most recent year harvests by wildlife management district, the WMDs in the western region of Maine have been producing as many bears as some of the northern and eastern WMDs.

There is no doubt Maine has plenty of bears and ample harvest opportunities for hunters who pursue them. For more information on bear hunting in Maine visit mefishwildlife.com.

“Bears”
While bear numbers continue to rise in New England, fewer hunters are pursuing them, including younger hunters. (Photo by Al Raychard)

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Bear numbers in the Granite State have experienced good growth over the past two decades. Going into the fall season, the statewide population is estimated at 6,100 with numbers at or above desired management levels in most regions.

Hunters who hunt or live in the Central and White Mountain Regions should have plenty of opportunity this fall. According to Andrew Timmins, Bear Project Leader for the New Hampshire Fish and Wildlife Department, bear densities in these regions are the highest in the state at 0.81 and 1.25 bears per square mile, respectively. The desired management goal through 2025 is 0.5 in the Central Region and 0.8 bears per square mile in the White Mountain Region.

“Generally, we would like to see a decrease in bears numbers statewide, but particularly in these two areas,” Timmins says, “So to achieve that goal we are proposing some seasonal changes.” The seasonal changes Timmins refers to were still in the public hearing process and wouldn’t take effect until 2019. But if adopted, hunters can look forward to 7 days added to the baiting season in the Central and White Mountain Regions.

In addition, 14 extra days would also be added to the general season in the Southwest 2 Region and 9 days added to the general season in the White Mountain and Central Region. Elsewhere in the state, bear numbers are stable but are apt to increase, as they have in recent years. The exception is in the far north where densities are slightly lower than desired goals. However, hunters still took 154 bears in the North Region in 2017, the third highest in the state.

Hunters took 586 bears in New Hampshire last year, a 23 percent drop over the previous 5-year average and 35 percent lower than the record harvest in 2016. As always, success this year will depend upon weather conditions, natural food abundance and hunter participation. Nonetheless, the hunting should be excellent. For current season dates and other bear hunting particulars visit wildlife.state.nh.us.

VERMONT

Green Mountain hunters had a pretty good season in 2017 harvesting 622 bears, the third highest total since 2012. According to Forrest Hammond, bear biologist for Vermont Fish and Wildlife, the statewide population is estimated at over 6,500, slightly higher than the Big Game Management Plan objective of 4,500 to 6,000. Hammond says Vermont’s bear population is strong throughout the state except in the Champlain Islands and continues its upward trend.

To counter that, hunters may remember an early bear season was put in 2013. Since then, the September 1 through November 9 season has proven popular among hunters specifically targeting bears. In 2017, 333 bears were taken in the early season. That number is down from the 547 taken during the early season in 2016, but overall the number of hunters opting to purchase the resident $5 and $15 non-resident early season bear tag remains high.

Hounding remains legal in Vermont with a permit, but as is well known baiting bears is prohibited and success during the early or late season depends a great deal on the abundance of natural foods and agricultural crops such as corn and how long they remain available.

As is typical, during years of low abundance, such as 2016, a record producing year overall, just 150 bears were taken during the late season due to low food availability and bears denning early. 2012 and 2014 were also poor mast years. The opposite was the case in 2013, 2015 and 2017. Well scattered and abundant food supplies were available into November, and snow came later than most years and with more hunters in the woods hunting deer, more bears were taken during the late season. In 2017 it was 46 percent.

Given that bumper mast crops generally occur every other year, 2018 should be a poor or mediocre year, so the early season most likely will be the time to hunt bears this fall. Whatever Mother Nature brings, Vermont hunters should scout their favorite haunts early and often, looking for the best food sources.

Vermont’s late season this year will commence November 10 and end November 18 and will once again overlap the deer season. Overall, considering available numbers and the long hunting season, bear hunters should do quite well this fall. Since 2012, Orleans County in the northeast, Rutland County along the south-central border with New York and Bennington and Windham Counties in the south have been among the top-producing bear counties in the state.

Bear hunters are reminded several rule changes were enacted that a take affect this fall. It is now mandatory all bears be field-dressed before reporting, and hunters must take a warden to the site of a bear kill upon request. New language also clarifies and improves regulations around hunting with hounds, with non-residents not being allowed to hunt with hounds until September 15. For more information on bear hunting in Vermont visit vtfishandwildlife.com.

MASSACHUSETTS

Bear numbers in Massachusetts have increased nearly ten-fold since the 1980s and total an estimated 4,500 to 5,000 statewide. As a result, the entire state was opened to bear hunting in 2015 and hunters have three seasons to bag a bruin.

This year the first season should commence September 4 and end September 22. The second season should start November 5 and end November 24 immediately followed by the November 26 through December 8 shotgun season. As in past years, rifles .23 caliber and larger, handguns .357 and larger, muzzleloaders .44 to .775 caliber and vertical bows with at least a 40-pound draw weight can be used during the first season.

During the second season, rifles, handguns, muzzleloaders and bows are legal weapons, but during the late shotgun season only muzzleloaders, bows and shotguns are legal. The limit remains one bear per calendar year.

Prior to 2014, hunters in Massachusetts bagged less than 190 bears annually. Since opening bear hunting statewide a year later and adding hunting opportunities, the tally has never been less than 200. In 2016 hunters took 283, a new record harvest. With plenty of bears and new options available, hunters this fall have plenty of opportunity keeping the take on an upward trend. With baiting and hounding prohibited, however, it will boil down to pre-season scouting, making contact with farmers growing agricultural crops, weather conditions and natural food availability.

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