Lush crops of acorns, hazelnuts and berries in many parts of Minnesota north of Little Falls and Hinckley reduced the wanderings of black bears and lowered this year’s harvest of the animals by as much as 70 percent in some areas.
With just a bit of hunting remaining, wildlife managers last week said 1,375 bears were taken by hunters in the first 17 days of the season. That’s 21 percent fewer than a year ago at this time and 40 percent below the year-to-date mark set in 2016.
In one major hunting area that stretches north from Mille Lacs to Hwy. 2 and then east to the Wisconsin border, oak trees produced so much food that the bear harvest dropped 60 to 70 percent, officials said.
“When food is good, sows in particular are homebodies. They don’t get shot,’’ said Tom Rusch, Area Wildlife Manager for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in Tower.
Rusch said this year’s bumper crop of natural foods across bear country began in the spring (no frost) and continued through a wet and warm summer. It was the most fruitful growing season he can remember since 1996, another down year for the harvest of black bears.
“Their preference is for natural foods,’’ Rusch said. “Whenever natural foods are good, harvest is off.’’
Same for nuisance bear complaints. This year’s abundance of such food as blueberries, chokecherries, raspberries, cranberries, elderberries, wild plum, dogwood berries, hazelnuts and acorns made for fewer human interactions, wildlife managers said.
Minnesota hunters have shot as many as 5,000 bears in a season, but the DNR has been limiting license sales since 1982. Dan Stark, the DNR’s large carnivore specialist, said recent quotas helped stop a decline in the bear population that happened before 2010. Since then, abundance of the animals has not grown, but it has stabilized at an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 black bears.
“Maybe forest conditions are not as good for bears,’’ Stark said. “We expect to continue to manage the quota area to see an increase in bear numbers.’’
This year, the agency allowed 3,350 quota-limited bear permits, same as a year ago. Of the 1,375 bears harvested and registered with the DNR from Sept. 1 to Sept. 17, 1,025 came from quota zones and 65 percent were male.
In fringe areas outside the quota zones, the DNR does not limit participation in the bear hunt. This year in no-quota areas, hunters purchased 2,700 licenses, which was down a little from a year ago.
Over the years, hunters have steadily increased the percentage of male bears that they target in a trend that officials hope will help grow the overall bear population.
Bear season ends Oct. 14, but hunters traditionally focus their efforts on the first two or three weeks of the season. Normally by the end of Week 3, 85 percent of the harvest is complete. That means this year’s total might only increase by 200 bears.
Stark and Rusch said one of the few exceptions to this season’s trend of lower harvests is in far northwestern Minnesota, where dry conditions stunted acorn production and other natural foods.