Bears were considered rare not long ago in much of southern New York. Except for the Catskill and Allegeny Mountain regions, the population was sparse. During those bygone days the Adirondack region supported the largest bear numbers and for years contributed the largest percentage of the annual bear take by hunters.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
BUT THINGS HAVE CHANGED FOR BEARS
The Department of Environmental Conservation traditionally managed the state's bear population within three regions of the state — the Adirondack, Catskills and Allegany regions — along the southwestern border with Pennsylvania. Covering over 9,200 square miles, primarily within the Adirondack Forest Preserve, the Adirondack Range was home to the largest number of bears in New York, roughly 50 to 60 percent of the estimated 6,000 to 8,000 bears in the state, according to DEC. The Catskill Range covered about 1,200 square miles, primarily within the Catskill Forest Preserve, and supported 30 to 35 percent of the bear population. The Allegany Region covered about 460 square miles and was home to about 10 to 15 percent.
But over time, things have changed, a fact that can be substantiated two ways.
Over the past three decades or so New York's bear population has expanded its range, particularly in the southern regions of the state. In more recent years, bears have increased their numbers along the Hudson River Valley and Taconic Highlands and the population continues to expand northward. To better manage the population, the DEC combined the Catskill and Allegany Range into one. Known as the Southern Black Bear Range (SBBR) it extends from the southwest corner of the state easterly along the Pennsylvania border, through southcentral New York to the Binghamton area, through the Catskills south to Orange and Rockland counties on the New Hersey Border and east through the Taconic Region.
The Adirondack bear range is now known as the Northern Black Bear Range (NBBR). While bears have been extending their range in the north too, that expansion has been slower than in the south. Although the Adirondack Forest Preserve remains the core habitat area, bears are now present from the Mohawk Valley along the southern fringe of the range north to the St. Lawrence River Valley. A stable population is also on the Fort Drum Military Reservation in Jefferson County and breeding pairs are present on the Tug Hill Plateau and along the eastern edge of the Black River Valley.
This boils down to a couple of important points. First, the NBBR continues to have more bears now that the former Allegany and Catskill bear ranges combined and bears have expanded their range outside these core areas. Second, if the DEC population percentage for each region is correct, the population gap between the southern bear range and northern bear range is narrowing. It also means hunters should enjoy increased opportunity to see bears, especially in the traditional Allegany and Catskill core areas.
Another indication things have changed over the past decade or so can be seen in the annual bear harvest. Since at least 2010 more bears have been taken each year in the southern bear range than in the northern range. In 2016, the southern contribution was nearly double that taken in the north. Of course, several wildlife management units in the Catskill region have the advantage of opening early and several seasons throughout the southern range run into mid and late December — long after seasons in the hunting seasons in the north have closed, And, depending upon seasonal food supplies, bears are generally out and about longer in the southern zone giving hunters more opportunity. But no matter how you slice it the southern bear range has come on strong as a hunting hotspot even as the northern zone has retained its own excellent hunting.
THE BEST BEAR SEASONS
Bear activity and availability to hunters is generally dictated by soft and hard mast availability. In years when berries and nuts are in good supply, bears are out and active later in the season. On the other hand, the bears are apt to den early when food supplies are scant. Early denning can also be quickened by early snow arrival, especially in the northern bear range.
This is well illustrated by a comparison of the annual harvest in recent years between the northern and southern bear zones. According to DEC, it is not unusual for bear harvests in the northern zone to alternate between strong early season harvests one year followed by strong regular season harvests the next. In 2016 the highest numbers of bears in the northern zone were taken during the early season, but in 2015 more bears were taken during the regular bear season. The early season had the highest average 5-year harvest between 2011 and 2015. The early season high success rate is most likely due to more abundant food supplies at that time of the season — and better hunting conditions thanks to the northern region being subject to relatively harsh weather patterns later in the regular season.
The most productive seasons in the southern bear zone, however, have proven quite different. In both 2016 and 2015 — in fact, as an average over the previous five seasons, most southern zone bears were taken during the regular bear season, followed by the archery season. The early bear season has been third, and has been most years since its inception, perhaps due to warmer weather in units open early. In warm weather, bears tend to move late and early in the day when temperatures are cooler, and may do most of their foraging outside of shooting hours. Also, fewer hunters are in the woods during the early bear season compared to the regular bear season, which often coincides with the regular deer season.
It is also interesting to note that of the 10 largest bears taken in 2016, nine were killed by hunters in the southern bear management zone. In 2015 only five of the largest were taken in the southern zone while five were taken in the northern. Both years, however, the regular bear season produced the largest number of biggest bears. The variety in these results suggests that taking a quality bear is possible throughout the state, but for a hunter to actually find and kill one depends a great deal on available food supplies for the bears.
SOUTHERN BEAR HOTSPOTS
If previous years are any indication, hunters in the southern region looking for bears this fall should have the best chances of success in wildlife management units right along the northern border of Pennsylvania, from Chautauqua County eastward. In these units resident bears numbers have been on the rise. Another prime area encompasses the Catskill counties of Delaware and Sullivan along the northeast border with the Keystone State, where bear harvests are among the highest in the state.
Bear numbers in towns and wildlife units in these areas also benefit from transients crossing the border. Weather conditions are also cooperative and wild food supplies usually in good supply late into the season. Much of the land along the border is private agricultural land. For obvious reasons, orchard owners and farmers generally welcome bear hunters who take the time to seek permission. Some even advise the local DEC offices of problems with bears and invite hunters to contact them — so for hunters looking for a place to hunt, contacting the regional office is always a good idea.
As good as it is, private land is not the only game in town. There are nearly 97,000 acres of state forests in southwest New York and numerous wildlife management areas that offer good bear hunting.
In South Valley about 16 miles east of Jamestown South Valley State Forest, Alleghany Reservoir Wildlife Management Areas and Pine Hill SF in Randolph cover nearly 6,500 of good bear country on west side of the Alleghany Reservoir. Other good possibilities include 3,162-acre Nine Mile SF in the towns of Allegany and Great Valley. In Mansfield, Little Valley, Ellicottville and Great Valley McCarty SF and Rock City offer another 6,229 acres.
To the east into Allegany County, Coyle SF in Belfast and Friendship covers 2,343 of good bear habitat and Vandermark SF in Ward also produces bears each year. In the town of Hudson, the Hanging Bog WMA is one of the largest public lands in the county and is bordered by Rush Creek SF, offering an additional 1,400 acres.
The entire Catskill area has been a top bear producer of late and public land abounds in this part of the state. In the town of Highland in Sullivan County the Hickok Multiple Use Area is just a few miles from the Pennsylvania border as the crow flies. The property covers 1,038 acres, has a good number of resident animals and is an easy trek for roaming bears. Access is available from Route 32 southeast of Eldred.
Another Sullivan County area offering prime bear habitat and good hunting is Mongaup Valley WMA in Forestburgh, Highland and Lumberland. The property covers some 6,313 acres. It is just 75 miles northwest of New York City and offers good access from State Routes 42, 17B and 55 and County Routes 32 and 31.
On the northern edge of the Catskills in Greene County the Windham High Park area offers plenty of bear potential. The area covers 4,250 acres of rolling hills with steep slopes. The terrain can make for some physically demanding hunting days, so hunters should be prepared. Access is possible from Route 23, Route 56 out of Maplecrest through the Black Dome Valley.
In Delaware County one of the best properties to spend time hunting bear is the Bear Spring Mountain WMA in Walton, Colchester and Hancock. The property covers 7,000 acres of rugged hills, mountain slides and valleys. Oak, sugar maple, beech and black cherry abound in the upland habitats and several small fields offer old apple orchards, all major food sources for bears. Access is possible from Route 206 south of Walton and Trout Brook Road and West Trout Brook Road cut through the property offer good access.
NORTHERN BEAR HOTSPOTS
Hunters don't have to look far to find good bear country in upstate New York, particularly within and surrounding the Adirondack Park where public land and private touch. Given the size of the area, a critical part of successful hunting is finding the food available to bears. Bears this time of year are serious about fattening up, and will exploit a food source they like until it is gone. Food is the key to both bear activity and to finding bears, especially late in the season when cold weather and snow might also be factors. This can come in the form of natural foods like beechnuts that vary in abundance year-to-year, or hunting agricultural lands and other private property near communities reporting nuisance bears. The local DEC regional offices have records of these reports and are good sources of bear activity.
In recent years public and private lands in Clinton, Franklin and Hamilton Counties have all reported good harvest numbers, but in 2016 St. Lawrence County lead all counties in the northern zone with 111, followed by Lewis County with 90, Warren County with 56 and Herkimer with 45.
Actual numbers this season will almost certainly vary somewhat from these, depending upon food supplies and weather conditions. However, each of these counties always contribute good numbers to the annual harvest.
For more information on bear hunting and public lands here in New York and local DEC regional office contacts visit the NYDEC web site at www.dec.ny.gov.