Our Best Black Bear Counties

Our Best Black Bear Counties

It's true that black bear populations are on the rise in New England, but that's not enough to put a rug on your den wall. These top-producing counties are the place to be if you want to bag a bruin in 2003.

By Bob Humphrey

Another New England black bear hunting season is just around the corner. Bear populations are on the rise throughout the Northeast, and the odds for success have never been higher. Here's a look at where to find your trophy bruin this season:

The Bay State now has more black bears than it can handle. According to biologist Jim Cardoza, Massachusetts now has maximum densities of bears just about everywhere there is suitable habit. The most bears will be found west of the Connecticut River. But "suitable habitat" is defined by biologists, not bears. Some animals are known to be residing as far east as central and northern Worcester County, and young males may range farther east into Middlesex County and south to the Connecticut-Rhode Island borders.

The division's objective is to stabilize the population within available range, but an estimated population of roughly 1,500 animals continues to grow by 8 to 10 percent per year, while the harvest is only growing by about 5 percent per year. Bears were taken from 45 different towns in the five western counties open to bear hunting last year.

To increase your odds for success, the distribution of the bear kill offers a reasonably good guide for where to go. According to MassWildlife calculations, Berkshire County has been the Bay State's perennial leader in bear harvests, and last year led the state with 46 bears taken from 15 towns.

Public-land hunters may want to target some of the county's larger wildlife management areas and state forests. These include Chalet WMA (5,354 acres) in Cheshire, Dalton and Windsor; Fox Den WMA (3,623 acres) in Worthington, Middlefield and Chester; October Mountain State Forest (16,127 acres) in Washington; or Beartown State Forest (10,879 acres) in Monterey.

Also, there has been a continued rise in crop damage complaints, so a phone call to the Western District headquarters at (413) 447-9789 could put hunters in contact with a landowner eager to grant access for bear hunting.

New England's top bear counties offer plenty of public land and ideal conditions for taking a trophy-size bruin. Photo by Vic Attardo

Next highest on the list is Franklin County, where hunters killed 27 bears in 12 different towns last year. Public-land hunters can find plenty of accessible land in Wendell, Erving, Mt. Grace and Warwick state forests. These cover well over 10,000 acres from Wendell north to the New Hampshire border.

Private land opportunities also abound, particularly on farmlands in the northern Connecticut River Valley.

Hampden and Hampshire counties typically account for 15 to 20 bears each per year, many of which come from larger blocks of undeveloped forest or farmlands in the central and southern Connecticut River Valley. Contact the Connecticut Valley District office at (413) 323-7671 for more information.

Massachusetts' 2003 early bear season runs from Sept. 2-20. The late season runs from Nov. 17-22. A permit is required and must be obtained prior to the season. Permits may be obtained from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Leverett Saltonstall Building, 100 Cambridge St., Boston, MA 02202; or call (617) 727-3151. Permitted firearms include: rifles of .23 caliber or greater, muzzleloaders of .44 to .775 caliber, bows with a 40-pound pull or greater and revolvers in .357 Magnum and .40 caliber or larger. Handguns are permitted only during the first week. Shotguns are prohibited for bear hunting.

For general information, contact the MDFW Field Headquarters, Westboro, MA 01581; call (508) 792-7220, or visit MassWildlife's Web site at www.state.ma.us/dfwele/dfw.

According to biologist Scott Darling, who chairs the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department's black bear research team, the bruin population in Vermont is estimated at between 3,000 and 3,500 animals and increasing. This fits nicely with Vermont's Bear Management Plan, which still calls for slight increases in the bear population over time. Of course, the Fish and Wildlife Department relies on hunter harvests to ensure that the bear population doesn't grow too fast.

The 2002 harvest was a bit lower than in the previous few years, but Darling noted that bear harvest figures are always sensitive to fall food supplies. Last year's abundant hard mast crop was a factor across northern New England because bears were able to find more food with less effort, reducing their susceptibility to hunting pressure.

That's good news for this year's hunt. Even with a good acorn crop, the preferred beechnuts should be scarce this year (because years of abundant beechnut production are usually followed by a year of reduced productivity), and so the bears will have to travel more to find food, making them easier to find.

Where should hunters go to take advantage of these increased opportunities? According to Darling, the best prospects for harvesting a Vermont bear remain in the Northeast Kingdom and the Green Mountains, which last year accounted for more than half the state's total bear kill. Based on last year's numbers, prospects in the Northeast Kingdom tend to get better as you move eastward across Orleans and northern Caledonia counties into Essex County. This is vast, undeveloped forestland with road access often limited to unimproved logging roads.

Green Mountain National Forest also consists of vast areas of undeveloped land with rugged terrain and limited access. Even better, this is all public land and, with little exception, is open to hunting.

Topographic maps and additional information on hunting in the Green Mountain National Forest are available by contacting the Forest Supervisor's office, 231 North Main St., Rutland, VT 05701; or call (802) 747-6700.

Strongholds in Vermont's northern units include southern Lamoille and eastern Addison counties. That trend also continues eastward and out of the forest into western Orange County. Southern forest districts in Bennington County WMUs N and P have also produced a disproportionate number of the state's hunter-killed bears, and this trend also continues eastward into Windham County. Hunters should not overlook areas where farmland abuts the forest and bears may be inclined to wander out to feed on nearby farm crops.

Vermont's 2003 bear season runs from Sept. 1 through Nov. 19. One b

ear may be taken per year by gun, bow or crossbow by permit. A permit is required for hunting with dogs, and hunting over bait is not allowed.

For more information, contact the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, 103 South Main St., Waterbury, VT 05671-0501; call (802) 241-3700; or visit the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department's Web site at www.anr.state.vt.us/fw/fwhome.

Last year's Granite State bear kill was down from the previous year. Biologists attributed this drop to a stabilizing bear population and good mast production. However, those stable levels still include plenty of bears, and prospects should be better this year, especially for early-season hunters. Even better news - bear populations are still on the rise in some areas.

The state's best bear-hunting county, based on recent harvest figures, is Grafton County. Some of this is no doubt due to the county's large size. However, even wildlife management units within Grafton County have disproportionately high bear kill numbers compared to the rest of the state. The best opportunities for public-land hunting are in the White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) in the northeastern corner of the county.

Next best are probably Belknap, Strafford and Carroll counties, which encircle Lake Winnipesaukee in south-central New Hampshire. The land here is mostly private, except for the portion of northern Carroll County that is in the WMNF. This area and southern Coos County are also where some of the state's biggest bears come from.

Hunting is permitted in most areas of the White Mountain National Forest except near campgrounds and other developed areas. A permit is required to establish a bait site. For more information, contact the Forest Supervisor, White Mountain National Forest, P.O. Box 638, Laconia, NH 03247; or call (603) 528-8721.

Somewhat surprisingly, northern Coos County is usually low in annual bear kill numbers, yet Sullivan, Merrimack and northern Cheshire counties in southwestern New Hampshire are consistent producers. In fact, this is one area of the state where bear numbers are higher than specific management goals. This is mostly private land, but there are large areas of undeveloped forest with limited road access, key ingredients in the recipe for bear hunting success.

New Hampshire has three hunting seasons that vary by wildlife management unit.

General seasons are established within a time frame of Sept. 1 through early December. Bait hunting is allowed from Sept. 1 through Sept. 28 (depending on region); the hound season runs from Sept. 22 through Nov. 12 (there's no hound season in the Southwest Region), and still-hunting is allowed during the full length of the regional bear season. All bear hunters require a $5 bear tag (in addition to a hunting license). Consult the 2003 New Hampshire Hunting Digest for important additional information.

In addition to a hunting or archery license, a bear license and tag are required. Bears may be taken with the aid of dogs with written permission of the executive director. Bait hunting requires a permit and written landowner permission. One bait is permitted per hunter, except that licensed New Hampshire bear hunting guides may establish up to three baits.

For more information, contact the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, 2 Hazen Dr., Concord, NH 03301; call (603) 271-3421; or visit the department's Web site at www.wildlife.state.nh.us.

Maine is the undisputed leader when it comes to bear hunting in New England. Maine's black bear population is conservatively estimated at 23,000.

"We may have more bears on the ground than we've ever had," said Randy Cross, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife's bear biologist. Last year, Maine hunters took 3,512 black bears, and this year's harvest is expected to be even higher.

Biologists are not overly concerned with the high kill. Citing research that he and others have been conducting for several decades, Cross speculates that the state could now sustain an annual kill of up to 4,000 bears. The main reason is beechnuts. Maine's bear harvest fluctuates annually, apparently in concert with the beechnut crop. In even-numbered years the early-season kill tends to be lighter and the late-season kill is heavier during heavy mast years, although the late-season harvest is mostly incidental to deer hunting and relatively fewer bears are taken.

This year, an expected scarcity of beechnuts should send bears wandering farther in search of food, making them more susceptible to early-season bait hunters, who typically take the majority of the annual kill. The bears also tend to den earlier when food is unavailable, meaning fewer animals will be taken during the late season.

Bears are well distributed over much of Maine, but northern and eastern counties tend to account for most of the kill. The most bears are taken annually in Aroostook County, which is Maine's largest and northernmost county. Most of this land is privately owned by timber companies and most of it is open to hunting. Many timber companies require a permit to establish bait sites, and some charge a fee.

Many townships in these northern counties also have some parcels of Public Reserved Lands (PRL) that are open to hunting. A permit is required to establish bait sites in these areas, too. The Maine Bureau of Public Lands charges a nominal fee for the privilege.

The Deboullie Unit encompasses 22,000 acres near the northern tip of Maine's border with Canada. The Eagle Lake Unit spans roughly 23,000 acres east of the town of Eagle Lake.

The 20,000-acre Round Pond Unit is one of a few PRLs within the North Maine Woods, an organization that manages recreation on nearly 3 million acres in northern Maine. To access the NMW, visitors must pass through a checkpoint and pay the required day-use or camping fees, which are used to defray the costs of managing public access and maintaining recreational facilities. The North Maine Woods office can be contacted at (207) 435-6213

The next best options for a Maine black bear hunt are the three counties that lie to the south: Somerset, Penobscot and Piscataquis. Again, timber companies own most of the land with a few notable exceptions. One is the 43,000-acre Nahmakanta Unit, the largest in the public reserved lands system. Also in this region is the 13,500-acre Little Moose Unit west of Greenville, one of the North Country's more popular jumping-off spots. A third area is the 10,000-acre Scraggly Lake Unit northeast of Baxter State Park in northern Penobscot County.

Washington County also has a dense bear population and contains a mix of working forestlands and vast blueberry barrens, which offer a rare opportunity for spot-and-stalk hunting. Public-land hunters can investigate the 14,000-acre Donnell Pond Unit, which is approximately 12 miles east of Ellsworth in Hancock County.

On the Hancock-Washington county line about 70 miles northeast of Bangor, the Duck Lake Unit covers more than 27,000 acres of forest on gently rolling terrain.

Maine offers bear hunters a variety of options in a season that spans approximately three months. The general season runs from Aug. 25 through Nov. 29 this year. Within this is a bait season (Aug. 25 through Sept. 20) and a dog season (Sept. 8 through Oct. 31). In addition to a hunting license, a special bear-hunting permit is required to hunt for bears during these seasons. During the open firearms season on deer, hunters with a general big-game license may take a bear. Non-residents hunting with dogs must employ and hunt with a Maine guide.

For general hunting and license information, contact the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, 284 State St., Augusta, Maine 04333; call (207) 287-5248; or access the MDIFW's Web site at www.mefishwildlife.com.

For information on guides and outfitters, contact the MDIFW's Public Affairs office at (207) 287-8000; the Maine Office of Tourism at (800) 533-9595; or the Maine Professional Guides Association, P.O. Box 336, Augusta, Maine 04332, call (207) 549-5631 or visit their Web site at www.maineguides.org

For more information on Public Reserved Lands, including maps, contact the Maine Department of Conservation, Bureau of Parks and Lands, 22 State House Station, Augusta, Maine 04333-0022; call (207) 287-3821 or access the Web site at www.state.me.us/doc/parks.

A good map is a must, especially for the unguided bear hunter. DeLorme offers an Atlas and Gazetteer for each of the New England states. These books are invaluable for locating roads, trails, waterways and other features. They also identify many of the state's public lands and campgrounds. Contact DeLorme at 2 DeLorme Dr., Yarmouth, Maine 04096; call (800) 452-5931; or visit the DeLorme Web site at www.delorme.com.

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