Things are looking good for New England's black bear hunters in 2006. Here's the lowdown on what you can expect when you head for the woods this fall. (August 2006)
Photo by Chuck & Grace Bartlett
Based on the most recent harvest reports, bear hunters in New England had a slow season last fall. Although some harvest figures were still preliminary at the time of this writing, in Massachusetts and from Vermont across to Maine, hunters registered 20 to 40 percent fewer bears than in 2004, making 2005 one of the poorest seasons in years.
After several years of record-breaking or near record-breaking harvests in all four states, the obvious question is, why was 2005 so unproductive? Certainly not because the bears aren't out there. According to biologists, black bear populations are on the rise throughout the region. And with bears showing up in areas where they haven't been seen in modern times, there is mounting evidence that bears are also increasing their range.
Jennifer Vashon, the Bear Project leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, suggests several factors that may have contributed to the lower harvest.
"I can't say what happened elsewhere," she said, "but bad weather and poor hunting conditions during the first weeks of the season led to lower hunter success in Maine."
Weather conditions can have a strong impact on hunter success, especially if bad weather occurs early in the season, Vashon said. Poor hunting conditions were reported across Maine last year.
There was also a bumper mast crop last fall throughout northern New England's top bear range. Years with big nut and berry crops generally result in high harvests because when food is abundant, bears den late. In Maine and New Hampshire, bear activity on baits during the baiting season -- traditionally the most productive hunting period -- can be slowed due to the availability of natural foods. In Maine, lower hunter participation means that simply fewer hunters were in the woods to take advantage of the situation.
Another factor may have contributed to the lower-than-normal harvest. A number of Maine guiding operations reported lower hunter participation due to the uncertainty of the referendum to prohibit traditional hunting methods in Maine.
"Many hunters opted to hunt in 2004, but probably didn't book hunts for 2005," Vashon says.
Whatever the reason for last fall's low yield, biologists generally agree on one thing: There will be plenty of bears out there this fall. As usual, weather conditions will play a role, but most managers are predicting that not only will hunter participation be back to normal, but so will the numbers of bears harvested.
There's also another thing to look forward to. Last winter was one of the driest and mildest on record. There are several reports of bears leaving the dens early this spring, which means they will have more time to put on some weight before the fall seasons.
Maine is home to more bears than any state in the Lower 48, and more than in some provinces north of the border. Wildlife officials estimate Maine's bear population at 23,000 animals. According to biologist Vashon of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the harvest levels in recent years have stabilized the bear population in accordance with the department's management goal.
Between 2000 and 2004, according to Vashon, Maine's bear harvests have been rather consistent, with a meager 1 percent difference between three of the four years -- in 2000, 2001 and 2003 -- when the harvest was 3,900 or higher. In 2002, hunters took 3,512 bear, but that was a low mast year, and in 2004, the harvest was 3,123.
At the time of this writing, final harvest figures for 2005 were not available. But in early October of last fall, the harvest for weeks 1 through 4 was estimated at 1,872 to 2,908 bears, using the regression equation first developed in 2002. That equation is based on fifteen years of bear-harvest data collected from registration stations after the first four weeks of the season. The 2005 figure during that period compares to 3,470 taken during the same period in 2004. Even with an additional 305 bears added to the October 2005 figure -- which is the average for weeks 5 through 13 in recent years -- the 2005 harvest should be between around 2,350 and 3,050, the lowest harvest since 1998, or up to 40 percent fewer than in the past five years. Considering last year's low harvest, Maine hunters can expect plenty of bear this fall and plenty of opportunities to bag one.
This year, the 13-week general season will open Aug. 28 and run through Nov. 25. As in the recent past, however, a large percentage of the harvest will undoubtedly be taken during the baiting season, which opens Aug. 28 and ends Sept. 23. Traditionally, about 80 percent of the annual harvest is taken during this period.
Hunting with hounds will begin Sept. 11 and run through Friday, Oct. 27. During these periods, a bear-hunting permit is required in addition to a big-game hunting license. The cost is $28 for resident hunters and $68 for non-residents, not including an agent's fee. Hunters may take a bear on their regular big-game license without the special bear license through the firearms deer season, which opens Oct. 30 and runs through Nov. 25.
Statistically, bears are harvested just about everywhere in Maine. According to the most recent figures, bears were taken in 27 of the state's 30 wildlife management districts (WMDs). The only areas that produced no bears were WMDs 22, 25 and 30, which include the mid-coast region and the offshore islands.
Leading the way were WMDs 11, 4, 8, 1 and 6, all in Aroostook, northern Piscataquis and northern Somerset counties. These counties offer some of the best bear habitat in Maine, have a high concentration of bear guides and outfitters and are perennial top producers. Combined, these districts and counties produced 1,480 bears in 2004, more than a third of the state's total harvest.
Other top-producing districts were WMDs 2, 3 and 5, all in Aroostook County (the top-producing bear county in the state, with 33 percent of the total harvest), and District 19 in Washington County. Each produced over 200 bears.
This doesn't mean to suggest that other Maine counties are lacking in opportunities. For the past several years, bear have been harvested in a dozen of Maine's 16 counties.
Starting this year, a new type of hunting challenge will be available to bear hunters. In 2005, the Maine Legislature legalized the use of crossbows during Maine's bear seasons and dur
ing the firearms deer season. Any crossbow must have a draw of 100 to 200 pounds, and hunters must have successfully passed an archery and crossbow hunting safety course, or show satisfactory proof of having hunted with a crossbow from another state or province after 1979.
When proof or evidence cannot be provided, applicants may substitute a signed affidavit. A special crossbow license in addition to a bear license and big-game license will be required. Crossbow licenses will cost residents $25 and non-residents $48, not including the agent's fee.
For more details on bear hunting in Maine and the new crossbow regulations, contact the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife at (207) 287-8000, or visit the agency's Web site at www.mefishwildlife.com.
For a list of bear guides, outfitters and hunting camps that cater to bear hunters, contact the Maine Professional Guides Association, P.O. Box 336, Augusta, ME 04332. E-mail the association at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.maineguides.org.
Granite State bear hunters had a banner year in 2003, setting a new state record with 802 bears harvested, nearly twice the five-year average, according to Andrew Timmins, the Bear Project Leader for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. By the end of October, in fact, the harvest in the North Country was so high that the season was closed early. This was the first time in history that the state mandated the early closure of a bear season.
In 2004 hunters did well too, taking 679 bears, the second-highest bear harvest on record. Both years were years of poor mast production, which forced bears to roam extensively for alternative foods, making them more vulnerable to hunters.
Things turned around in 2005. Abundant mast crops across much of the state allowed bears to travel less and feed in more remote areas. As a result, last year's harvest total fell to 433 bears -- 36 percent fewer than in 2004, but more in line with the preceding five-year average of 559 bears and closer to desired harvest goals.
Despite the high harvests in 2003 and 2004, Timmins said the state's bear population is relatively stable at about 5,300 animals. He also suggested that due to the abundance of acorns last fall, a good cub crop this year should increase the population.
In many areas of the state, adult bears had plenty to eat when they emerged from their dens last spring -- another benefit at a critical time of year.
All in all, things look very good for New Hampshire bear hunters this fall. Because 2006 is a season-setting year, season dates and details will not be finalized until late summer. But few changes are expected. There will be slight changes in the opening and closing dates from last year because how the calendar dates fall. Keep in mind, too, that closing dates vary by method and WMU, so hunters should make a point to check the digest of new regulations when it becomes available.
Bears may be legally hunted with firearms larger than .22 rimfire, shotguns loaded with single ball, muzzleloaders not less than .40 caliber and with bows with at least a 40-pound pull. Crossbows are not legal for use during the New Hampshire black bear hunting season.
Hunters planning to hunt over bait must first file for a permit with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. Applications can be picked up at NHFG regional offices in Durham, Keene, New Hampton and Lancaster, from local conservation officers or from department headquarters in Concord.
Permits to bait on state-owned or state-managed land including the White Mountain National Forest are issued on a first-come, first-served basis starting April 1. Guides may apply to hunt these lands after April 15. The deadline for applying is August 1.
Applications for baiting on private property are not subject to the Aug. 1 deadline, but must be signed by the landowner and received by the NHFG Law Enforcement Division at least three days before bait is placed.
Statistically, bears were harvested in all six geographic areas of New Hampshire in 2005. Leading the way were the White Mountain Region with 147 bears, and the Northern Region with 126. The Central Region, (WMUs G, I1, J1 and J2) produced 112 bruins. These areas should be top producers again this fall.
The Southwest Region-1, WMUs H1 and I-2, produced 35 bears. The Southwest Region-2, consisting of WMUs H2 and K, gave up 9 bears, while the Southeast Region, WMUs L and M, produced only 4 bears.
For open and closing bear-season dates for 2006, as well more information on bear hunting in the Granite State, contact the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department at (603) 271-3421, or visit the department's Web site at www.wildlife.state.nh.us.
Black bears were first elevated to big-game status in Vermont back in 1941. Since then, several laws restricting how bears may be harvested have been put in place. Trapping of bruins was banned in 1967, baiting was prohibited in 1972 and controls on the use of dogs have been established. Presently, using dogs to take bear is legal, but hunters must have a bear-dog permit. No more than six dogs may be used, the number of bear-dog permits issued to non-residents is limited and are issued by lottery. According to regulations in the Vermont Digest of Hunting, Fishing & Trapping Laws, "It is illegal to advertise, hire, barter, exchange, buy, expose or otherwise sell the use of a dog or dogs for the purpose of taking any bear."
A recent harvest report states that stalking around natural food sources is the most popular method of hunting bears. Hunters using dogs and stalking take about 83 percent of the harvest by hunting areas where berries, wild apples, beechnuts and acorns are available. Only about 17 percent is taken with dogs.
And hunting bears seems to be popular. About 73 percent of those harvested were taken by hunters seeking bears specifically, while about 25 percent were taken by hunters searching for other game. The statewide population is currently estimated at 3,800 to 4,200 bears, up slightly from the 3,000 to 3,800 commonly quoted a few years ago. And all indications are that this year's opportunities for bear will be quite good.
In 2003 and 2004, Vermont hunters harvested 721 and 718 bears, respectively. As was true in other parts of northern New England, Those were poor mast-producing years, and bears had to roam larger areas to find food, making them more susceptible to hunters. Last year, however, acorns and other foods were in abundance. Bears had to travel less to find food, and hunting was more of a challenge. The preliminary harvest fell to 439, according to John Hall, an information officer with Vermont Fish and Wildlife.
No new changes are planned for this year. The state's two-and-one-half month season will run from Sept. 1 through Nov. 15. No special bear license is required, but hunters must possess a big-game hunting license. The cost for residents is $16, and $90 for non-residents.
Although black bear are harvested annually throughout much of Vermont, their core habitat will be found along the spine of the Green Mountains and in the northeast corner of the state. In recent years, Wildlife Management Units D2 and E in the Northeast Kingdom area and WMUs C, D1, G, H1, I, J1, L, M1, N, P and Q -- which take in the north-central area along the border with Quebec and Green Mountain region south to the Massachusetts border -- have been among the top producers. Considering that these areas provide the best habitat in the state and the largest concentration of bears, expect them to lead the way again this fall.
For more information, contact the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department at (802) 241-3700; or visit them at www.vtfishandwildlife.com.
Hunters in Massachusetts had a fair season in 2005, taking 113 bears. That is the lowest number since 2002, when 116 bears were harvested -- and well below the 153 and 146 taken in 2003 and 2004 -- but the fourth highest since 1996. An abundance of berries and hard mast undoubtedly encouraged bears to travel less in search of food and kept them in more secluded areas, contributing to the lower harvest.
The season is split into two segments, including about 17 days in September (Sept. 5 to 23), in an effort to control agricultural damage. This is a good time to contact dairy farmers with fields of corn and silage who may be experiencing trouble with bears. The MassWildlife district offices often maintain a list of areas where damage is being reported.
The second season will run from Nov. 6 to 25, which is a good time to hunt hardwood areas and ridgetops where natural foods are most abundant.
Hunters should keep in mind that bear hunting is allowed only in zones 1 through 9, which include Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire and Worcester counties. Statistically, the largest bear harvests in recent years have come from west of the Connecticut River. These counties offer some of the largest tracts of undeveloped land in the commonwealth, include some of the state's most extensive agricultural areas and contain some of the largest wildlife management areas (WMAs) in the state, all of which are open to hunting.
You can obtain a list of WMAs from any MassWildlife district office or on the agency's web site.
During the 2005 seasons, Berkshire County produced 52 bears followed by Franklin County (34), Hampden County (14) and Hampshire County (13). No bears were harvested in Worcester County.
A $5 bear-hunting permit is required in addition to the basic hunting license. Bear-permit applications are available at MassWildlife district offices or online. Resident licenses cost $27.50 and non-resident big-game licenses cost $99.50.
For more information, contact MassWildlife at (508) 792-7270 or visit the agency's Web site at www.mass.gov/wildlife.
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