All 11 clients of Minnesota bear hunting guide Steve Battalion achieved success last year in a bountiful season that ended with an all-time record kill rate throughout the heart of the state's black bear range.

This year, too, looks promising for hunters. So many bears were openly roaming the woods last month around International Falls that Battalion could report on their density without the aid of trail cameras. The 2017 season opened Friday with Battalion and other outfitters in the northern tier of the state saying bear sightings have been plentiful.

The season runs through Oct. 15.

"When I'm driving by bears on my four-wheeler, it's like they're waiting for me'' to drop bait, Battalion said. "Our baits are getting hit well.''

But in a paradox that belies the recent ease of bear hunting in Minnesota, the actual abundance of the animals is historically low and state game managers are holding hunters back from killing more. Over the past two decades, Minnesota's population of black bears has plunged steeply, from 25,000 to an estimated range of 12,000 to 15,000. Tighter hunting restrictions have aimed, without much luck, to reverse the trend.

Some outfitters interpreted last year's record kill rate of 50 percent (in quota-restricted zones) as a bounce-back in bear numbers. But Dave Garshelis, the top bear biologist and researcher at the state Department of Natural Resources, provided a different interpretation: Bear behavior was altered by a shortage of natural foods, he said, such as acorns, wild hazelnuts and dogwood berries. Plus, fewer hunters under a lottery-controlled permit system had less competition attracting bruins.

"They were very vulnerable last year,'' Garshelis said. "They were easy to bait.''

Instead of relaxing quotas for 2017, the DNR tightened them. With natural food supplies again in short supply this year, Garshelis is relieved to have taken a conservative approach.

"It appears you could, through baiting, really wipe out the bear population very quickly,'' he said.

Frustration grows

Battalion said plenty of hunters think the DNR is underestimating the size of the bear population. They're frustrated by a lottery system that grants 75 percent fewer licenses than a decade ago. Applicants are waiting four years in some zones to get a tag.

"I think they could loosen it up a little,'' Battalion said.

State Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, has heard some pleas from bear hunters to expand the harvest. But the former game warden said he won't second-guess the DNR's estimates of the bear population. Visual observations and anecdotal evidence are no match for the computer modeling and other science mastered by Garshelis over many years of study, Cornish said.

"Everyone would love to see more permits, but if we err … ,'' Cornish said.

A member of the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee, Cornish spent much of Friday in a bear-hunting stand near Northome, armed with a compound bow. At least two big bears had visited his bait station on the eve of the opener, according to a trail camera.

"Seems like there's a lot of bear and not an overabundance of food in the woods,'' Cornish said.

Bear-hunting guide Lynnette Hischer of Willow River said this year's cooler weather has stimulated bear activity around her bait sites on private and public land north of Hinckley. She agrees with observations that natural food sources are thin for the second year in a row, but weather and hunter expertise will play the biggest role in hunter success, she said.

Garshelis said it took a while for the state to recognize that Minnesota's bear population had crashed. Hunting is by far the biggest mortality factor for the animals, and the agency made big downward adjustments in issuing hunting permits in quota zones for 2011, 2012 and 2013. In 2010, 9,500 permits were issued in the restricted zones, compared to 3,850 last year.

This year, the DNR cut the allotment to 3,350 licenses, believing that too many bears were killed in 2016.

"As soon as we drop the quotas, hunting success goes up,'' Garshelis said.

Surprising spillover

Moreover, with all the pent-up demand to harvest a bear in quota zones, there's been a spillover of bear hunters trying their luck in "no-quota'' areas where anyone can buy a license over the counter in any given year.

The no-quota areas ring the state's core bear habitat, starting with Pine and Chisago counties in the east and rolling counterclockwise to Roseau and Kittson counties in the far northwest. Garshelis said that's where some of the state's biggest bears live in patches of berry-filled woods surrounded by corn crops, sunflowers and oats.

Garshelis said there were nearly as many permits drawn last year for the no-quota areas as there were for the more traditional quota-controlled zones — a first. In fact, a record high harvest in the no-quota areas contributed last year to the highest statewide bear harvest in six years — 2,641 bears.

New this year is a stronger emphasis on enforcing a law requiring successful hunters to submit a bear tooth sample for age analysis. Game managers want to know how the harvest is being distributed across age classes.

When the age of harvested bears declines significantly, as it has in Minnesota, it's an indication that the overall population is dropping, Garshelis said. In 2016, half the male bears taken here were either 1 or 2 years old. Half the female bears were age 3 or younger, meaning they never matured to reproductive age.

Garshelis said Minnesota bear hunters are in for an extended era of harvest limitations because the overall bear population will take years to recover.

No population goal has been established, he said, "but another 5,000 bears would be nice.''