New England's 2009 Black Bear Forecast

Bear numbers are up throughout the Northeast and state biologists are predicting near-record harvests if conditions allow. Here's how things are shaping up in your state for 2009. (August 2009)

Reports from around the Northeast are that the 2008 black bear harvest was down, not because of a lack of bears, but because natural food supplies were abundant and hunters were not. The good news is that, as a result, there is a bumper crop of well-fed black bears out there for hunters to harvest in 2009.

Each of New England's four bear- hunting states holds promise for a successful 2009 black bear season. Here's a look at what hunters can expect when the season opens this fall:

MAINE
The Pine Tree State boasts an estimated 23,000 black bears. Numbers are stable, and possibly rising. Because both bears and vast tracts of forested land are available, most traditional hunting methods are allowed, including hunting with dogs and over bait. Season dates vary by method, so always check current regulations before heading out.

Currently, an effort to review estimated black bear numbers is underway.

"We continue to monitor harvest levels and hunter effort, and monitor bears via radio telemetry studies in three different areas," said Jennifer Vashon, Bear Project leader with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. "Last year, we asked hunters to voluntarily submit a tooth from bears they harvested. From those we can estimate the age of each harvested black bear. Hunters will be provided the age of the bear they harvest via the department's Web site this fall. After several years of obtaining the age of harvested black bears, we can develop an accurate estimate of the minimum size of Maine's bear population."

Vashon said she was pleased with the number of teeth donated in 2008 (about 1,000), especially since this program was new to check stations and hunters. She is hoping for even more donated teeth this fall. Hunters will again be asked to donate a bear tooth at check stations, and will be provided with an envelope in which to mail the tooth to Vashon, as well as instructions for tooth removal.

"We appreciate the hunters voluntarily submitting their bear teeth to us," Vashon said. "It's really important for us to get these so we can get another estimate of how bear populations are doing in the state.

"If this number is in line with other estimates (harvest and population monitoring of collared bears), this may be a more cost-effective monitoring effort," Vashon continued. "In 2007, we equipped 20 female black bears with GPS collars to estimate the number of bears per square mile in northern Maine. We will equip another 20 female bears with GPS collars in eastern Maine in 2009, and 20 female bears in central Maine in 2010.

These density estimates are essential for providing current estimates of bear numbers in Maine. We will also obtain information on important habitats for bears from GPS locations taken from bears wearing GPS collars at different times of the year, and thereby learn more about bear movement patterns and the onset of denning."

While only preliminary numbers were in, Vashon said that the 2008 harvest would likely be fewer than 3,000 bears -- the lowest harvest on record in recent years.

"About 80 percent of the bears harvested in Maine are harvested by non-residents," Vashon said, "But non-resident hunter participation is declining, and that has been attributed to the tough economic times."

Vashon said that based on low bookings thus far for bear hunts in 2009, the department is expecting similar harvest numbers this fall.

"Weather conditions, availability of natural foods and hunter participation have the greatest influence on bear hunter success when habitat conditions and bear numbers are stable," she said.

Vashon said that northern and eastern regions of the state have especially abundant bear numbers.

WMA Options
The Bud Leavitt Wildlife Management Area, also known as Bull Hill, spans 6,500 acres along Route 15 in the towns of Charleston, Garland, Dover-Foxcroft and Atkinson. This upland WMA has undergone intensive forest and wildlife management since 1981, and provides excellent bear-hunting opportunities.

In Aroostook County, bear hunters should scout out either Dickwood WMA or Gordon Manual WMA. Dickwood is about six miles northwest of Eagle Lake. The 4,360-acre WMA is mostly upland forest surrounding a small shallow lake. Check DeLorme's Maine Atlas and Gazetteer, Map 67.

Gordon Manual's 6,482 acres spread through the towns of Hodgdon and Linneaus. This WMA is mostly upland forest, with a variety of wetlands and some fields. See DeLorme's MAG, Map 53.

For more Maine bear hunting information, call (207) 287-8000, or visit www.maine.gov/ifw/index.html.

For a list of registered Maine guides, write to the Maine Professional Guide's Association, P.O. Box 336, Augusta, ME 04332-0336; or go online to www.maineguides.org.

For travel information, call the Maine Office of Tourism at (888) 624-6345, or visit www.visitmaine. com.

MASSACHUSETTS
Black bear numbers in the Bay State have been rising steadily since MassWildlife began formal monitoring every five years back in the early 1980s, according to James Cardoza, MassWildlife's leading black bear biologist.

The population currently hovers between 2,900 and 3,000 black bears.

"In terms of regulating the population (via hunting regulations) there's not a great deal we can do," Cardoza said. "We don't have the most efficient means of hunting. We don't allow baiting, we don't allow hounds, and we don't allow bear hunting during deer season."

However, the Bay State has plenty of habitat managed with the benefit of bears and other wildlife in mind, he said.

Preliminary numbers indicated an early-season harvest of 126 black bears in 2008, down from the 2007 harvest. Late-season numbers had not yet been tallied.

"The harvest was down because of food availability, especially because the only way we have to hunt bears is by stand- or still-hunting," Cardoza said.

An abundance of natural foods kept bears away from agricultural areas during the early season, and this means the animals are more dispersed.

Massachusetts' 17-day early black bear s

eason runs from the Monday after Labor Day to the third Saturday in the month (Sept. 26 in 2009). The 18-day late season runs from the first Monday to the third Saturday in November.

"If natural foods are scarce, bears will bunch up around corn fields," Cardoza said. "If there's a lot of soft mast, it will be harder for people to hunt them. That's the major factor in determining what the season is going to be like. The other is weather. If there's a big storm on the first day or a Saturday, the hunters who are less interested just won't go out. If we've got good conditions, I see no reason why hunters wouldn't do very well, especially in central and western Massachusetts."

Cardoza said the highest bear densities will be found west of the Connecticut River and almost everywhere in central Massachusetts.

WMA Options
The Catamount WMA in Colrain consists of 256 acres in two parcels. The land is primarily mixed hardwood forest, including oak and beech. Access may be had off Stacy Road or Catamount Hill Road.

For details, check DeLorme's Massachusetts Atlas and Gazetteer, Map 22.

Montague WMA in Montague spans 1,339 acres. The land is primarily mixed hardwood forest, including stands of American chestnuts. Understory forage species include plenty of blueberries, and there are old fruit trees on the WMA. Access may be had off Chestnut Hill Road or North Leverett Road.

Details can be found on DeLorme's MAG, Map 23.

For more Bay State bear-hunting information, interested hunters may visit the MassWildlife Web site at www.mass.gov/dfwele/dfw, or call (617) 626-1590.

For travel information, visit www.massvacation.com, or call (617) 973-8500.

NEW HAMPSHIRE
Black bear numbers in the Granite State remain at an estimated 4,800 animals.

"The New Hampshire bear population is managed based on the bear population management objectives stated in the New Hampshire Big Game Management Plan, which spans the period from 2006 to 2015," said Andrew Timmins, Bear Project leader with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. "The bear population objectives stated in the plan were formulated, including input from the public. Bear management decisions during this time period will be made in an attempt to meet the population objectives stated in the plan.

"An annual regulated bear harvest is the primary tool used to meet those population management objectives," Timmins noted. "Bear seasons are set biennially, and the season structure is manipulated to maintain regional bear populations at levels consistent with management goals and objectives."

Timmins said that bear research is also an important component of the state's management program.

"Recent research initiatives have included estimating bear abundance via genetic tagging, study of the ecology and behavior of nuisance bears, and assessing the impacts of various aversive conditioning techniques on the behavior and activity patterns of nuisance bears," Timmins said.

"The greatest current bear management challenge in New Hampshire continues to be minimizing bear-human conflicts. As the human population continues to increase, it becomes an increasing management challenge to keep human-bear conflicts at socially acceptable levels. We continue to experience increased human development in more remote regions of the state. This puts humans in closer proximity to bears and increases the likelihood of conflicts."

Timmins called the 2008 harvest of 439 bears "typical," with approximately 10 percent of the bear population taken last fall.

"Fall hard-mast crops were generally abundant throughout most of the state during 2008," he said. "As a result, the abundant foods decreased the need for bears to travel far in search of food, thereby decreasing their vulnerability to hunting. Hunters had more difficulty locating and patterning bears, causing a decrease in the hunter take. This trend is typical during strong food years. During poor food years, bears become more vulnerable to hunting, resulting in an increase in the annual harvest tally."

New Hampshire's bear seasons allow hunting over bait, still-hunting, stalking and using hounds. Season dates vary by wildlife management unit. Always check current hunting regulations before heading out.

Timmins said hunter success should be good in 2009.

"Bear populations in many parts of the state are at or near our population management goals," he said. "Therefore, we continue to have a strong statewide population, and hunters stand a good chance of locating bears during the hunting season. However, success will depend largely on the weather plus food distribution and abundance."

WMA Options
Brown WMA in Pittsburg consists of Brown Lots I and II, totaling 803 acres. Habitat is mostly mature upland northern hardwood forest. Old logging roads wind through the property. Access is via Back Lake Road, off Route 3.

For details, check DeLorme's New Hampshire Atlas and Gazetteer, Map 52.

Black bears are commonly found on the Merrymeeting Marsh WMA, likely drawn by its understory of blueberry bushes. This 450-acre WMA in Alton has an extensive wetland system with upland forests surrounding the marsh.

Access is off Merrymeeting Lake Road in New Durham. Check DeLorme's NHAG, Map 37, for details.

For more information about bear- hunting opportunities in New Hampshire, visit www.wildlife.state.nh.us and click on "Hunting." Season dates, harvest rates by year and WMU, the Big Game Plan, a link to licenses, hunting guides and more can be viewed on this Web site.

Call (800) 386-4664 to order a vacation guidebook or (603) 271-2665 to speak to Department of Tourism staff, or visit www.visitnh.gov.

VERMONT
There are an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 bruins roaming the Green Mountain State. According to John Buck, a wildlife biologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, bear numbers have been climbing gradually over the past decade. Buck said that the bear population is managed largely through the timing of hunting season, and bag limits.

"The other thing we do is habitat conservation, which goes beyond bears, but bears are a principle component," Buck said. "We identify particular forests through aerial remote sending data and highlight those areas. We regulate certain human development -- ski areas, high-elevation housing developments -- in those areas. We also work with community planning commissions to encourage them to incorporate local development regulations into their town plans and regional plans, to go beyond the bare necessities of habitat preservation.

"The state can only protect critical habitat," Buck noted. "A town

has more authority to protect bears and other wildlife habitat from smaller developments that, accumulatively, have just as much of an impact."

Vermont is in the process of collecting teeth from harvested bears.

"We strongly encourage bear hunters to send us the pre-molar," Buck said. "Removing the tooth does not affect mounted heads, and having that information would greatly increase the accuracy of our population model."

Envelopes for submitting bear teeth for study are available at check stations.

Vermont's 2008 bear take was up slightly.

"I think the season went well," Buck said. "There were 475 bears reported for the entire season, including a new state-record bear that weighed 525 pounds. That number is about average, in fact, a little higher than the long-term average, and was directly related to fall food abundance.

"More food keeps bears out longer," Buck said. "Our bear season runs into deer season for five days, so there was that much more opportunity, more vulnerability. We were pleased with what we had this year."

Vermont's 2009 black bear season begins Sept. 1 and runs through Nov. 18 this year.

"I would expect a season similar to 2008, all things being equal," Buck said. "The harvest should be 400 to 500 bears, somewhere in that range. It's a long season. If the foods are there again, the bears will be out.

"We have a great deal of hunting pressure during deer season -- some are hunting bear, but a lot of bears are taken by deer hunters, so if bears were denning at that time, they wouldn't be as vulnerable," Buck added. "If the fall food situation is a bust, those bears won't be around in November.

The Numbers Game
"We have a couple of areas that tend to exhibit higher bear densities," Buck continued. "They tend to be the more remote, roadless areas, of course. The Green Mountain National Forest, up and down the spine of the state from the Massachusetts border to the Sugar Bush Ski Area near Montpelier, provides about 3,000 acres of public land that are open to bear hunting."

Buck said that former Champion Timber Company lands have been sold, some to the federal government, some to the state and some to private owners, most with hunting rights retained.

"There are about 120,000 acres in Essex County alone," Buck said, noting that these former timberlands come with the bonus of old logging roads that provide easier access into some prime hunting areas.

For more information on bear hunting in Vermont, call the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department's Rutland office at (802) 786-0040 or visit www.vtfishandwildlife.com.

For travel information, call the Vermont Department of Tourism at (802) 828-3237, or visit www.travel-vermont.com.

For lodging and guiding information, call the Vermont Outdoor Guides Association at (800) 425-8747 or try online at www.voga.org.

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