The combination of longer seasons and more bears means great New England bear hunting in 2017.
By Al Raychard
If you hunt bears in New England, or have any inkling of doing so anytime soon, you'll be pleased to learn bear populations are doing extremely well. In fact, bear populations in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts have never been higher in modern times and every study conducted indicates numbers are increasing.
Generally cooperative weather conditions during the season were one factor in new record harvests being reported in New Hampshire and Massachusetts and above-average numbers in New Hampshire in 2016.
Last season was also preceded by dry summer weather, conditions that produced fewer natural foods for bears. That situation causes bears to travel more to find food, and a traveling bear is more likely to walk in front of a hunter.
Of course, berries, acorns, beechnuts and other foods could be more abundant this fall, and that could make bears harder to find in Massachusetts and Vermont and not as predictable on bait stations in Maine and New Hampshire. But there is little doubt there are plenty of bears and opportunities out there. Nowadays in New England, even a tough year for hunting results in many successful hunts.
Just five years ago Maine was home to an estimated 30,000 black bears, which was at the time perhaps the largest population in the Lower 48. That number has now increased to about 36,000, according to Jennifer Vashon, a bear biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The bear population increase has led to an expansion of the range of bears in Maine. Bears are becoming more common in populated southern and coastal areas of the state where numbers have traditionally been lowest. Game managers are keenly aware of the increase in the bear population in these areas because bear complaint reports have been on the rise. On average the MDIFW receives some 500 bear-complaint calls annually but reached an all-time high of 827 in 2012.
"We definitely would like to see more bears taken each year." Vashon said, "(We would need) somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,500 to 4,000 just to stabilize the population, but that hasn't been the case."
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In fact, the Maine bear harvest hasn't reached or surpassed the 4,000 mark since at least 2005 and came close to 3,500 just once.
"On average, hunters have been taking around 3,000 bears each year, and that's just not enough or close to desired management objectives," she said.
To help boost harvest numbers, the department likes to remind hunters of the long general hunting season that starts this year Aug. 28 and ends Nov. 25. There is also a youth day on Aug. 26, the Saturday before the general season opener. Maine residents can hunt bears during the November rifle deer season with just a big-game hunting license; they do not need a bear permit. Non-residents must be in possession of a bear permit, which costs $40, along with a big-game hunting license.
In recent years bears have been killed in 26 of 29 wildlife management districts in Maine. Numbers range from just one or two in the southern and mid-coast districts to a couple hundred in the far north and western mountains. In particular WMD 4 west of Baxter State Park, WMD 5 north of the park, WMD 6 in the northeast corner of the state, WMD 8 west of Moosehead Lake and WMD 11 stretching from Sherman east to the New Brunswick border are perennial top producers and should be at the top of the list this year.
This prime part of the state includes some or parts of a number of counties: Aroostook, Piscataquis, Penobscot Somerset, Washington, Hancock, Oxford and Franklin.
Although the western towns bordering New Hampshire produce far fewer bears by comparison, hunters here have been killing more bears than usual in recent years, something local October archery deer and November gun deer hunters might want to keep in mind.
For more information on bear hunting in Maine visit www.mefishwildlife.com.
The bear population in the Granite State has shown moderate increases in recent years and now numbers over 6,000 animals. To help bring numbers closer to management goals, the hunting season was extended in the White Mountain, Central, Southwest-2 and Southeast wildlife management units last year and the 2016 framework will remain the same this fall. Hunters should check the current hunting and trapping digest for exact opening dates, keeping in mind that closing dates vary by season and unit.
Hunters should also check for new regulations pertaining to taking bears with non-resident dog packs, new dates after which dogs cannot be run from bait areas, and rules that clarify the use of bear guide tags.
According to Andrew Timmins, Bear Project Leader for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, 898 bears were killed in 2016, a new harvest record and 34 percent above the five-year average. As is traditionally the case, most bears were taken during the baiting season. Still hunters came in second in most units followed by hunters using hounds. High harvest years also occurred in 2012, 2014 and 2015 â€” generally poor or lower natural food production years â€” and this year's take will greatly depend on how well or poorly Mother Nature cooperates.
With that said, given the current bear densities and extended season dates in four of six management units and that, as Timmins put it, "Bears are abundant and at or above desired population goals in most areas of the state," 2017 should be another good year. This is especially true in the three northernmost management units that provide the best habitat and where bear densities are among the highest in the state.
Hunters will also find plenty of public land. The Connecticut Lake Headwaters Project Lands cover 171,000 acres in Pittsburg, Clarksville and Stewartstown. For information on gate and road opening status hunters should visit the NH State Parks web site at www.nhstateparks.org, or telephone the regional office in Pittsburg by dialing 1-(603) 538-6707. The Nash Stream Forest in Stratford and Odell is also good bear territory, as is the White Mountain National Forest from Stark south to Randolph.
In the central region, the larger wildlife management areas and state forests including the Enfield WMA and Ellis Hatch WMA.
But hunters should also check out public lands in the Southwest-1 Region that produced 89 bears in 2016, well above the 69 five-year average, and Southwest-2 Region that had a record harvest. Hunters should find plenty of opportunity in the Croydon Mountain area north of Claremont, and in the Newport, Gile and Mount Kearsarge state forests to name but a few.
For more information on public lands and bear hunting in New Hampshire visit www.wildlife.state.nh.us.
Vermont's 2010-2020 Big Game Management Plan calls for a bear population objective of between 4,500 and 6,000 bears. The upper reaches of that goal had been reached a few years ago. To help bring numbers down, an early bear season was put in place starting in 2013. That year hunters killed 556 bears and the annual take has increased each year since to 697 in 2016. That's a 33 percent increase over the 10-year average.
"The early season is helping us meet our management goal," says Forrest Hammond, Bear Project Leader with Vermont's Fish and Wildlife Department. "The interesting thing is prior to last year hunters took nearly equal numbers of bears in the early and late seasons. But in 2016 a majority (of the bears) â€” 547 â€” were taken in the early season and just 150 in the late season, which overlaps the November deer season and when more hunters are in the woods."
It's not certain whether this trend will continue or whether it is a factor that might vary year-to-year depending on weather and available mast. One thing is certain, however: Since its inception the early season has been popular. Between 2013 and 2016 an average 11,500 hunters have specifically targeted bears annually during the early opportunity.
To hunt the early bear season, you need an Early Season Bear License in addition to the hunting license. The cost for residents is $5 ($15 for non-residents). As always, Vermont's big-game hunting license comes with a bear tag that may be used in the late season.
A new regulation starting this year makes it mandatory for all successful bear hunters to submit a premolar tooth at the time of registration. For more information check the 2017 regulations.
This year the early season will open Sept. 1 and end Nov. 10. The late season opens the very next day, Nov. 11, and ends Nov. 19.
According to biologist Hammond, bears are well distributed throughout much of Vermont, so prime hunting opportunities are apt to be available everywhere. Judging by harvest figures in recent years, however, the most productive include Wildlife Management Units D1 and D2, the big woods country in the Northeast Kingdom and Units H, I, J1, J2, L, M. N and P.
Within these areas hunters will find nearly 800,000 acres of public land and most of Vermont's 90 wildlife management areas, so finding a place to hunt isn't much of a problem. In the northeast, some of the larger wildlife areas like the Bill Sladyk WMA in Orleans and Essex Counties, Willoughby State Forest in Sutton, the Victory Basins WMA in Essex County and West Mountain WMA near Maidstone are prime bear areas. To the south Groton State Forest in Groton and Coolidge State Forest in Sherburne are other potential hot locations.
Of course, since bait is not allowed, hunters should find good sources of natural foods such as wild raspberries, black berries, chokecherries, appples and hard mast like beechnuts and acorns to improve the chances of success.
For more information on public lands in Vermont and bear hunting visit www.vtfishandwildlife.com.
Bay State hunters had a very good year in 2016, taking 283 bears, a new record. The previous record was 240 in 2014. Some 204 bears came from counties west of the Connecticut River â€” 94 from Berkshire County alone, home to some of the state's best bear habitat.
As usual, other top counties were Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden. Each of these counties is also home to some large public lands that hold bears. As hunters may recall, bear hunting was allowed statewide for the first time in 2015 to help control numbers in the more populated eastern counties. Thirty bears were killed east of the Connecticut River in 2016. All of them came from Worcester County.
This year hunters again will be able to take advantage of three bear hunting seasons.
The First Season will commence Sept. 5 and end Sept. 23.
The Second Season starts Nov. 6 and ends Nov. 25.
The late Shotgun Season starts Nov. 27 and runs until Dec. 9.
Traditionally, the late bear season produced the most bears because it overlaps the shotgun deer season and more hunters were in the woods. But of late the September season has taken over. This trend may be driven by strong bear population numbers, as bears in the early season are moving from food source to food source to put on weight for the winter. And they are moving in weather that is better for hunting. Finally, in the early season there are fewer hunters overall in the woods, which is a boon to dedicated bear hunters. Hunters took 190 bears in the early season last year, followed by 47 in shotgun season and 46 in the Second Season.
For more information on bear hunting and public hunting areas in Massachusetts visit www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/dfg/dfw.
Back in 2013 a proposal to allow bear hunting in Connecticut failed to pass the General Assembly. Since then bear numbers in the state have increased by about 10 percent annually and now number 700 and 800 animals.
In 2016 bears were spotted in 134 of Connecticut's 169 cities and towns and as a result bear complaints have also increased â€” there were 571 in Avon and 493 in Farmington alone in 2016. In all the DEEP received over 6,700 bear sightings and complaints last year. A total of 43 bears were also killed on the state's roads and highways, the most ever.
To address the growing population a bill to allow hunting was again introduced to the General Assembly in March of 2017. That bill was modified in such a way to remove the bear-hunting sections, and thus bear hunting remains on hold. If the measure had passed, it would have been the first bear-hunting season in Connecticut since 1840.