Minnesota’s bear season opens Tuesday amid upbeat expectations.

Though hunter numbers will be low again, many believe a good season is ahead. That’s because the bear population seems to be on the upswing. Also, natural bear foods have been in only average or short supply for much of the summer. Together, these factors could draw good numbers of bears to hunters’ baits.

“Some of my baits are going gangbusters, and one isn’t,” said Dick Reese, vice president of the Minnesota Bear Guides Association “That tells me that in some areas bears are finding plenty of natural food.”

This is the third consecutive year that bear hunting permits have remained greatly curtailed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The DNR is intentionally limiting the hunt as part of a plan to boost the bear population. The agency offered 3,700 licenses this year in the primary bear range, called the quota zone. That’s 50 fewer than the past two years, the lowest number in decades and about one-fifth as many offered during the license availability peak in 1999.

Anecdotally, the DNR’s population rebuilding strategy appears to be working.

DNR wildlife managers throughout central and northern Minnesota have reported a rise in citizen bear-sightings. Ross Heir, DNR area wildlife supervisor at Crookston, said there have never been so many bear sighting phone calls in the area. Erik Thorson, DNR area wildlife manager at Park Rapids, said bear reports are up from last year, and “I am sure the bear population is building from where it was several years ago.” Tom Rush, DNR area wildlife manager at Tower, said “we seem to be turning the corner on bear numbers.” Other wildlife managers offer similar sentiments.

Still, they believe part of this year’s increase in bear sightings is linked to a widespread blueberry crop failure and no bumper crops of other wild foods.

“The upcoming harvest will ultimately reflect availability of wild food, bear density and hunter numbers,” said Paul Telander, DNR wildlife chief. Unlike deer hunting, he added, individual hunter success is linked more to local food availability than the bear population itself. “When acorns and other natural foods are abundant, bears — even when there are many of them — are less likely to be drawn to hunters’ baits, and the converse is also true,” he said.

Last year, hunters took 1,627 bears, the lowest tally since 1988. Of these, 1,241 were taken in bear management units where hunters need to enter a lottery for a license; 386 were taken in the no-quota zone. The no-quota zone is where the forest fringe and agricultural lands intermix. Hunter numbers are not restricted in the no-quota zone. Hunter numbers have been increasing in this zone as a result of reductions in quota-zone hunting permits.

Bear baiting began Aug. 15, roughly two weeks before the opening of the season. The bulk of the bear hunt will be complete by mid-September. It is common for about 70 percent of the harvest to occur during the first week of hunting and more than 80 percent by the end of the second. Last year, about one-fourth of hunters killed a bear. Interest in bear hunting remains strong. About 18,000 hunters applied for this year’s 3,700 licenses.

How many bears?

The DNR’s latest estimate puts the bear population at 10,000 to 15,000, down significantly from estimates of 17,000 to 25,000 in the 1980s and 1990s. Minnesota’s bear population trended up during the 1980s, peaked during the late 1990s and declined during the early 2000s through 2012.

Dave Garshelis, DNR wildlife research biologist, said the bear population estimate is derived from bear teeth that hunters must submit as part of the registration process. The DNR can determine a bear’s age from its teeth, and because hunting accounts for about 80 percent of bear mortality, researchers make further determinations as to the population trend and number of bears.

“Hunters help us monitor the population of this secretive animal by providing the information we use for our models,” said Garshelis. “The higher the hunter ­compliance rate the higher the reliability of our data.” He added that as reliability increases “so does our ability to make appropriate and timely season and license number adjustments.”

About 25 percent of last year’s hunters did not submit a tooth. To improve compliance, the DNR’s enforcement division sent a warning letter this summer to those out of compliance.

“We will still accept teeth from the 2014 hunting season,” Garsheli said. “As long as we know it’s last year’s tooth we can use the data to refine our population estimates.”

Collared research bears

Garshelis encouraged hunters “to pass” on radio-collared research bears. Though legal to harvest, Garshelis called them “highly valuable animals” that provide important information used in management decisions. The DNR has about 20 radio-collared research bears throughout the state, most in the Camp Ripley area of central Minnesota and the no-quota area of northwest Minnesota. DNR research bears can be identified by large, brightly colored ear tags even if their collar is not visible.

 

C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer from Baxter, Minn.