Bear numbers and hunter success rates were high across the region last season. Will the good hunting continue?
Photo by VIC ATTARDO
If successful hunting seasons are determined by harvest figures, then there is little doubt 2009 was a very successful year for New England bear hunters.
In Maine, hunters killed more than 3,000 bears for the first time in more than five seasons. Across the border in New Hampshire, hunters killed the second-highest number of bears in history, and for Vermont hunters the harvest increase was nearly as impressive. To the south, bear hunters in Massachusetts set a new harvest record breaking the old record established back in 2003.
But what does this mean for hunters in 2010?
For one thing, it means there are plenty of bears out there.
Current population models indicate bear numbers are at or above desired management levels in all four states. Maine's bear population has been officially estimated at 23,000 for years, yet it is known the population is not only increasing in number but that the range of the bear population is expanding.
"In the next couple of years, we may have to update our population estimate and may modify our hunting seasons if necessary to meet management objectives," said Jennifer Vashon, the department's bear project leader. In other words, it may be necessary for Maine hunters to harvest more bears, something hunters have not been doing in recent years.
For the most part, the same is true elsewhere in New England, where bear numbers are on the rise and not enough bears are being harvested to stabilize the population or meet management objectives.
In New England bear hunting, however, other seasonal factors influence determine how successful hunters are this fall. The most important is the abundance and availability of natural foods -- or the lack of those foods -- since natural food availability has a direct correlation on bear movement, where bears are apt to be found and how long bears will be out and about in the fall. All this ultimately affects the annual bear harvest.
Hunting bears over bait is legal only in Maine and New Hampshire among New England states, and typically hunters in those two states see more bears per hours hunted and enjoy the highest success rates in the region.
But even in those states, during years with high yields of hard and soft mast crops, fewer bears go to baits and the bears that do come to bait come less frequently.
In Vermont and Massachusetts, where baiting is not allowed, during years of high mast yields, hunters may have to travel further afield to find bears. Additionally, bear movement is more difficult to pattern because bears travel less to find food and tend to concentrate in isolated and remote areas where food is readily available. The end result is lower hunter harvests.
During years of low natural food production, however, bears come to baits more readily or are found closer to apple orchards, corn fields, other agricultural lands and areas closer to human development and activity. Not only do the bears move more, but some bears may move out of their normal range, and as most hunters know, moving bears are easier to locate, pattern and hunt, so harvest figures are traditionally higher. Generally, the availability of natural food was below average throughout much of New England's bear range in 2009 and hunters in all four states experienced some of the best hunting in years.
With all this said and done, it is difficult to predict the abundance of natural foods year to year. Some regions of a particular state typically produce low or moderate supplies while others may experience bumper crops. Given last year's overall poor showing, however, and the cyclic production patterns of these foods, especially hard mast crops, we can expect a repeat low production or moderate production. Either way, considering the healthy bear populations in each state and lengthy hunting seasons it all boils down to another good year for New England bear hunters.
Of all the New England states, Maine has the largest bear population and, by far, the largest number of bears taken each season. Photo by Al Raychard.
In recent years bears have been killed in as many as 13 of Maine's 16 counties -- even York and Cumberland Counties, the state's most southern and most populated counties, respectively. The harvest in York County has been reaching into double digits the past few years, and while the take in Cumberland County has been less (usually less than 10), the increase in kills is a clear indicator bear numbers are on the rise even in the most southern regions of Maine.
As populated and developed as these two counties are, hunters will still find plenty of room to hunt bears. In the Town of Parsonsfield in western York County the so-called Leavitt Plantation offers more than 8,600-acres of public land open to hunting, and to the south in the towns of Newfield and Shapleigh the Hiram S. Walker Wildlife Management Area off Route 11/109 covering 3,954-acres is another good spot to find bears.
By far, however, the largest numbers of bears taken each year in Maine come from the northern and central counties and there is no reason why these counties will not produce their share of bear this year. Topping the list is Aroostook, Maine, the most northern and largest county. Each year, for the past decade or so "The County" as it is called has produced 35 to 40 percent of Maine's annual bear harvest. The County offers a good bear habitat combination of large woodlands, vast agricultural lands and a small human population.
Somerset, Piscataquis and Penobscot Counties typically come in second, third or fourth (though the exact order varies from year to year). Washington County generally rounds out the top five bear-producing counties.
Bear hunters will find fewer wildlife management areas in these counties but all offer big woods, lots of wild foods and some of the best bear range in the state. They are also home to a large chuck of Maine's more than 500,000-acres of Public Reserve Lands, all of which is open to public hunting. A large percentage of Maine's commercial bear hunting camps are also located in these counties and those establishments draw a majority of non-resident be
ar hunters each year.
For more information on Maine Public Reserve Lands contact the Bureau of Parks and Land by telephoning (207) 287-3821; or visit the bureau's web site at www.maine.gov/doc/parks/programs/prl.html
Other counties that have shown increasing promise and harvest numbers in recent years are Oxford and Franklin Counties, in the western region of the state.
Maine's lengthy general bear season will commence August 30 this year and run through November 27. The baiting season starts opening day and runs to September 25; hunting with dogs begins September 13 and runs through October 29. Hunters are reminded a big game hunting license as well as a special bear hunting permit are required to hunt bears in Maine, both of which are available over the counter at venders throughout the state.
For more information on bear hunting in Maine, license and permit fees and other particulars contact the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife by telephoning (207) 287-8000; or visit the department's web site at www.maine.gov/ifw
The 2009 bear harvest in the Granite State was 50-percent higher than the preceding 5-year average and 72-percent higher than in 2008. While it is doubtful the harvest will as high this year, "Hunters typically harvest 8 to 10 percent of the state's bear populations," said Andrew Timmons, Bear Project Leader for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, "and with the state-wide population estimated at between 4,800 and 5,000 animals, the speculation is the 2010 harvest will come in around the 5-year average of 500 bears."
The final count of course could vary up or down depending upon this year's crop of wild foods, weather conditions and hunter participation, all of which are difficult to predict.
Still, judging by recent years harvest totals, hunters should find plenty of opportunity in the White Mountain Region, the north woodlands and Central Region. Combined, these areas produced 674 bears in 2009 out of 755 bears taken statewide. Each region has consistently averaged more bears over a 5-year period than the Southwest-1, Southwest-2 and Southeast Regions combined. 2010 will no doubt produce the same results.
The New Hampshire bear season varies by wildlife management unit, so hunters should study the dates in the 2010 Hunting Digest. Generally, the baiting season starts September 1 but ends at different times in different management units. In most units the hound season opens around September 21 and runs into November. Bait hunters are reminded they must file for a special baiting permit with the Fish and Game Department and other rules also apply.
For more information on bear hunting in general, license and permit fees, baiting permits and permit deadlines and public lands open to bear hunting contact the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department by telephoning (603) 271-2461; or visit the department's web site at www.wildlife.state.nh.us
Hunters interested in hunting on the White Mountain National Forest should contact the Forest Supervisor's Office by telephoning (603) 536-6100; or visit the forest's web site at www.fs.fed.us/r9/white
Vermont's bear population is currently estimated at between 4,600 and 5,700 animals, an increase of about 27 percent since 1997.
While bears are killed annually in nearly every county, the largest percentage are taken in the northeast region known as the "Northeast Kingdom" and along the Green Mountains running in a north-south direction through the middle of the state. These regions offer the largest tracts of unbroken forestland in the state, support the highest bear densities and are considered the core bear habitat in Vermont.
In 2009, Green Mountain State hunters killed 629 bears and the majority came from Wildlife Management Units D1, D2 and E all in the northeast region and WMUs I, L and P within the Green Mountains.
These regions also offer some of largest public land open to hunting, including the Green Mountain National Forest encompassing 400,000-acres, the Bill Sladyk WMA near Island Pond at 10,175-acres, the Victory Basin WMA at 4,970-acres northeast of St. Johnsbury and West Mountain WMA at 22,738-acres in Maidstone, Ferdinand and Brunswick. Each is considered prime bear range.
It should be remembered, however, baiting bears in Vermont was outlawed back in 1972, and while hounds may be used to hunt bears the practice is highly regulated. Because of these regulations the majority of bears killed each year in Vermont are by stalking near natural food sources -- which means pre-season scouting to find those foods is key to success.
Early in the season areas producing late-ripening berries and cornfields are always worth investigating. Later in the season, hardwoods ridges producing acorns and beechnuts, and old apple orchards should be given priority. During years of poor mast production Vermont bears will travel great distances to find these foods, often leaving their core area to do so. During those off years Wildlife Management Units bordering those in the Northeast Kingdom and Green Mountains such as WMU G, J1, M1 and N may produce better than average hunting.
This year the Vermont bear season will open September 1 and end November 17. More information on bear hunting can be obtained by contacting the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department by telephoning (802) 241-3700; or visit the department web site at www.vtfishandwildlife.com
For information on hunting on the Green Mountain National Forest contact the Forest Supervisor's Office by telephoning (802) 747-6700; or visit the forest web site at www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/greemountain
Bay State hunters killed a record 168 bears in 2009, thanks to poor natural food production and roaming bears being more susceptible to hunters. The largest field-dressed bear killed with a rifle was taken in Blandford and weighed 357 pounds. The largest with a bow, taken in Otis, dressed at 301 pounds.
There is little doubt bears are expanding their range eastward in Massachusetts, but the four westernmost counties of Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire, typically in that order, produce the most bears. That is not expected to change this year.
These counties offer the best bear range in the commonwealth and largest variety of natural foods, and they are also interspersed with agricultural fields and orchards bears take advantage during years of poor natural food production. This is an important factor, considering both baiting and the use of hounds is prohibited to hunt bears.
Hunters here will also find some of Massachusetts' largest wildlife management areas and other public lands open to hunting, and most farmers welcome bear hunters who seek permission to hunt due to crop damage.
This year the Massachusetts split bear season will take place September 7 through September 25 to help reduce agricultural crop damage, and November 1 through November 20. Hunters are reminded a $5 Bear Hunting Permit is required in addition to their hunting, sporting license or non-resident hunting license.
For more information on bear hunting and places to hunt contact MassWildlife by telephoning (508) 389-6300; or visit the MassWildlife web site at www.mass.gov/dfwele/dfw