Northeast bear hunters can expect another great season in 2008. Here's what New England's biologists are predicting, based on long-term population and harvest trends.
Throughout New England, bear numbers are up or holding steady. In most states, harvest rates are also strong. Hunters with a good working knowledge of bruin behavior and the time to do some pre-season scouting stand a good chance of bagging a bear in 2008.
Biologists have long said that bear behavior is driven largely by food supply. Well before opening day, a wise hunter will find natural mast, apple orchards and cornfields that are drawing in black bears.
The Pine Tree State has more black bears than most of the other New England states combined, yet the state's dense forest habitat makes bear sightings a rare treat.
According to Jennifer Vashon, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife's Bear Project leader, about 23,000 bruins are roaming the Maine woods, and their population remains fairly stable from year to year. Bears are a valued big game resource in Maine and are carefully managed.
"Each year, we analyze harvest data and participation rates to determine trends in hunter success and harvest levels," Vashon said. "We also continue to study black bears at three sites in northern, central and eastern Maine.
"We monitor radio-collared female black bears to document reproductive rates, cub survival and adult and yearling female survival rates.
"This year, we are initiating an update to our density estimates using GPS technology," she continued.
"Fifteen female bears will be equipped with GPS collars so we can map their home ranges in our northern study area. By mapping the outer boundaries of their ranges, we can estimate population density, which is the number of bears per square mile.
"From these collars, we will also gather information on den entry-den exit dates, habitat use and bear movements. The collars will be removed from bears during den visits in January 2009. The data will be downloaded off the collars, and then we will replace the batteries and deploy the collars on 15 bears in our eastern study site.
"The biggest challenge is getting adequate funding to maintain our telemetry studies and initiate other survey efforts to better monitor and manage Maine's bear population," she noted. "Like most state agencies, the department depends on dedicated funds, with little or no general-fund money. Thus, our budget is flat to declining in spite of increasing responsibilities like non-game duties and public safety. To be more effective, we need other sources of revenue, like state general funds or new sources of dedicated funds."
Because deer, moose and furbearer harvests are tallied before bears, Vashon did not have 2007 harvest figures at press time. But she expected that about 3,000 bears were taken. She wasn't anticipating any changes to the current bear-hunting season structure, but those decisions aren't finalized until solid harvest data has been analyzed.
Overall, the 2008 outlook seems good for Maine's bear hunters.
"Hunter participation rates are stable, and weather and natural foods appear to have the strongest impact on recent harvest levels," Vashon said. She noted that these factors make pre-season predictions difficult.
"Most bears in Maine are harvested over bait, and weather and natural food availability impact bears' response to baits. In years with good or exceptional natural food production, fewer bears visit hunters' baits or they visit them less frequently.
"Weather affects not only the bears' response to baits -- it can also influence hunter-participation rates. In 2005, for example, the remnants of Hurricane Katrina hit Maine in the opening week of bear season, and that week, the harvest was low.
"Resident hunters typically do not hire guides, but operate their own bait sites and hunt on weekends. For that reason, we suspect recent increases in gas prices have also likely influenced hunter participation. Hunters are putting out fewer baits and are spending fewer days in the field."
Maine's black bear hunting season runs from late August through November. The bag limit is one bear per hunter. Maine allows hunting over baits, with hounds, still-hunting, stalking and trapping -- with some restrictions.
Recent changes to trapping laws, supported by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, included reducing the number of traps allowed from two to one per hunter and banning foot-hold traps. Those changes are now in effect. Be sure to check the 2008 hunting regulations before heading out.
For more information about bear hunting in the Pine Tree State, visit http://www.maine.gov/ifw/hunting_trapping/hunting/index.htm. Or you can call (207) 287-8000.
For a list of registered Maine guides, write to the Maine Professional Guide's Association, P.O. Box 336, Augusta, ME 04332-0336.
Or visit the agency's Web site at www.maineguides.org.
For travel information, visit www.visitmaine.com, or telephone the Maine Office of Tourism at 1-888-624-6345.
Bay State bear numbers have been on an upward trend in recent years, and the harvests reflect that. The 2007 harvest was 143 black bears, while a total of 148 bears were taken in 2006. These are some of the highest numbers over the past dozen years, with only 2003's harvest of 153 bears topping more recent numbers. Berkshire and Franklin counties remain the leading areas for yielding decent black bear harvest numbers.
"There is an excellent bear population in western Massachusetts," said James Cardoza, MassWildlife's leading black bear biologist. "Hunter success is largely determined by food distribution and availability. (Continued)
"If natural foods like acorns and berries are abundant, the bears may be widely dispersed across the landscape -- and less available to hunters than during years when the bears are focusing on cornfields."
Cardoza was reluctant to forecast 2008 hunter success rates because fall food supplies, weather and hunter-participati
on levels are important unknowns. He did note that more hunters go out for bear during the September season than in November, when there are so many other species available to hunt.
This year, Massachusetts' split season dates are Sept. 2 through 20 and Nov. 3 through 22.
The September season is geared toward cutting down on agricultural damage, especially to corn crops. Hunters are traditionally more successful during the September hunt, but some large male black bears are taken each November.
Baiting in Massachusetts became illegal in 1970. Hunting with hounds was ruled out in 1996. These days, success depends on tree-stand hunting near popular food supplies or trying to sneak up on a wary bruin in a berry patch or apple orchard. Stand hunting accounts for 75 to 80 percent of the harvest each year.
Either way, hunters will need to scout out natural food sources before opening day. In years when acorns, beech and cherries are plentiful, bears will be more dispersed as they take advantage of all these sources.
If natural mast is scarce, hunters should focus on local cornfields and apple orchards. Find paths beaten down by bears heading for cornfields, bedding areas, tracks, scat and telltale claw marks on beech trees.
Pay special attention for sign around areas that feature thick cover.
Some farmers concerned about crop damage do welcome hunters, so consider knocking on a few doors this year. When you take into account crop harvests, livestock and landowner's wishes, a friendly farm visit may result in excellent hunting for many years to come.
Currently there are about 3,000 black bears in Massachusetts, with the highest concentrations in the western region.
"The long-term trend has been upward," Cardoza said. "Of several factors contributing to a population increase, the most recent are likely an increase in adult female survival, and an increase in the number of females producing their first litter at three years of age."
In recent years, bear behavior has changed in response to human actions and activities, the biologist said, resulting in problems with suburban bears. Since 1970, season length and timing have been revised upward several times.
Cardoza noted that limitations on hunting methods have a stifling effect on hunter success, and that public response to suburban bear woes poses a real challenge for the Bay State's wildlife management team.
For more bear-hunting information visit the MassWildlife Web site at www.mass.gov/dfwele/dfw, or phone (617) 626-1590.
For general Bay State travel information, visit www.massvacation.com, or call (617) 973-8500.
For several years, the Granite State's population of black bears has hovered around 4,600 animals.
"The New Hampshire bear population is managed based on objectives stated in the Big Game Management Plan that spans the period from 2006 to 2015," said Andrew Timmins, Bear Project leader for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. "The bear-population objectives stated in this plan were formulated with input by the public.
"During this time period, bear management decisions will attempt to meet the population objectives stated in the plan.
"The annual, regulated bear harvest is the primary tool we use to meet our population management objectives," Timmins explained. "Bear seasons are set bi-annually, and the season structure is manipulated to maintain regional bear populations at levels consistent with our goals.
"Continued research is also an important component in the New Hampshire bear management program," he noted. "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."
Currently, Timmins said, the greatest bear-management challenge continues to be minimizing New Hampshire's bear-human conflicts.
"As the human population in the state continues to increase, it becomes an increasing management challenge to keep human-bear conflicts at socially acceptable levels," he said.
"Human development continues to increase in more remote regions of the state. This puts humans in closer proximity to bears and increases the likelihood of conflicts."
The 2007 black bear season was a perfect example of how the food supply drives hunter success.
"There were 614 bears harvested," Timmins said. "This was the third-highest harvest historically and 18 percent above the preceding five-year average of 521 bears. The increase in harvest appeared to be mostly due to poor fall mast production during 2007. However, some select soft-mast crops -- specifically, apples -- had excellent production.
"Bears concentrated around these food sources and spent a lot of time in wild apple orchards, which increased their vulnerability to hunters."
When multiple mast-producing trees experience good production, bears are less vulnerable, and the harvest decreases, Timmins pointed out.
"When overall production is poor, or a specific species has good production and remaining species produce poorly, the harvest tends to increase.
"Additionally, the growing interest in bait hunting in New Hampshire seems to be influencing harvest rates to some degree. Bait hunting is more successful compared to other methods of bear harvest, so as bait hunters' efforts increase, bait harvest tends to increase also."
Season dates were not yet finalized as of press time.
"We are currently in our season-setting process," Timmins said.
"However, the season will start on Sept. 1 and likely run through Nov. 11. Season dates will vary by method.
"Hunter success should be good in 2008," he concluded. "In many parts of the state, bear populations are at or near the population-management goals. Therefore, we continue to have a strong statewide population, and hunters stand a strong chance of finding a bear during the hunting season. However, success will depend largely on annual food distribution and abundance."
For more information about bear-hunting opportunities in New Hampshire, visit www.wildlife.state.nh.usand click on "Hunting." Season dates, harvest rates by year and WMU, the Big Ga
me Plan, a link to licenses hunting guides and more may all be found on this Web site.
For travel planning, call 1-800-386-4664 to order a vacation guidebook, or (603) 271-2665 to speak to New Hampshire Department of Tourism staff. Or visit www.visitnh.gov.
In the Green Mountain State, black bear numbers have been climbing in recent years, likely due to some low harvest rates over the same period of time.
Scott Darling is a wildlife biologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. According to him, there are anywhere from 4,600 to 5,700 black bears roaming the Vermont woods. Vermont has one of the nation's highest densities of black bears -- about one bear every three square miles!
In April, the state planned to host public open-houses and this summer, to adopt a new 10-year black bear management plan to establish population objectives and management strategies.
"With this new plan, the key issue will be that Vermont's bear management program has been designed around growing the black bear population," Darling said. "Recent public surveys indicate that Vermonters now prefer to stabilize bear populations at current levels. To achieve this objective, different management strategies will be needed."
Bears are big critters. They need large, unbroken areas of habitat and undisturbed corridors for travel to their seasonal feeding and wintering spots. Highways and unrestricted development often break up bear habitat and cut off travel corridors, a phenomenon called "fragmentation."
Fragmented habitat and corridors restrict bears from moving normally around their home ranges. It reduces access to natural foods and increases the odds of car-bear accidents. Fragmentation also brings bears into more frequent contact with humans.
Bears are opportunistic feeders and will eat almost anything. So as their natural habitat gets squeezed, they are coming to view pet food, bird feeders, barbeque grills, camp food and garbage cans as alternative food sources.
While some people like knowing they're out there, not many folks appreciate having a hungry bear foraging in their back yards! Traditionally, when people-bear interactions increase, the public calls for more control of bear numbers.
Currently, hunting bears over bait is illegal in Vermont. But bears may be hunted with hounds as long as the person wrangling the dogs holds a bear-dog permit, uses no more than six dogs, and no commercial guiding is involved.
Vermont has one of the nation's highest densities of black bears -- about one bear every three square miles!
Resident and non-resident hunting licenses include a bear tag.
Vermont black bears can be found pretty much statewide, except for on the Champlain islands. The heavily forested lands of the Green Mountain and Northeast Kingdom regions of the state support the largest bear populations.
During the 2007 season, 424 black bears were harvested. "This was due to poor fall mast supplies that initiated early denning during the latter part of the season," Darling said.
Still, the biologist is calling for a successful 2008 black bear season, which will run from Sept. 1 through Nov. 19.
"Vermont bear populations remain relatively high," Darling said. "So I would forecast another successful black bear season. Yet it will depend upon natural food supplies that affect bear movement and availability."
Early in the season, scout out berries, cherries or standing corn that may attract bears. Later this fall, as bears fatten up for the den, wild apples, beechnuts and acorns will be their main food sources.
For more information on bear hunting in Vermont, call the department's Rutland Fish and Wildlife office at (802) 786-0040, or you can visit www.vtfishandwildlife.com.
For travel information, call the Vermont Department of Tourism at (802) 828-3237, or visit www.travel-vermont.com.
For guiding information, contact the Vermont Outdoor Guides Association at 1-800-425-8747, or try them online at www.voga.org.