Bear Populations Increasing, Record Harvests Reported

Record harvests and expanded seasons are the norm as populations of black bears increase throughout the United States.

Bear Populations Increasing, Record Harvests Reported

Utah's wildlife commission has increased its black bear hunting and pursuit permits for 2020. (Photo: Utah DNR)

Record harvests and expanded seasons are becoming the norm as populations of black bears increase throughout the United States.

It's a challenging situation for state wildlife officials who must balance the management of black bears with the desires of hunters, non-hunters and politicians.

A good example is Florida, where during a 2016 hunt — the first in more than 20 years after two decades of management data compilation and education — more than 300 bears were killed by hunters in two days. The quota was met quickly, the hunt halted and that was the end of it. Arguments for and against the hunt continued, of course, with officials choosing the one-and-done route. No hunt has been held since then and officials can't say when or if one will be held, despite the Sunshine State's population of more than 4,000 bears living there now.

Several states are seeing record black bear harvests and even expanding seasons, however. Utah's state wildlife board approved 122 permits for the 2020 spring season where bear numbers are up as is mortality on whitetail deer. The board also will take up bear management discussions and planning annually instead of every three years.

Some other news about black bears:

Vermont Record Harvest

The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department reports a record 750 black bears during the two-part early and late seasons. The previous record was 728 in 2004.

The average number of bears taken over the previous 10 years was 597. Those season results are consistent with the goal of maintaining the bear population to within 4,500 to 6,000 bears, according to Fish and Wildlife’s bear biologist, Forrest Hammond.

In 2019, hunters took a majority of the bears, 481, in the early season and only 269 in the late bear season, which overlaps with the November deer season. Many large bears were reported with 12 weighing more than 300 pounds.

Hammond noted that participation in the early bear season has remained high with large numbers of hunters choosing to purchase a $5 early season bear tag

“Between an abundant population, a long hunting season and the potential of harvesting delicious and nutritious bear meat, Vermonters and visitors are becoming increasingly interested in hunting this big game animal,” he said.

“Fifty years ago Vermont had less than 1,500 bears, and they were found mostly in the mountains and northeastern quarter of the state. Today we have about 5,000 bears and they are found pretty much throughout the state.”

Bear hunters must visit one of 150 game check stations and by completing hunter effort surveys to help provide data for management. Each hunter is required to submit a pre-molar tooth from their bear, which provide information on the age of the animal.

Arkansas Numbers Down Slightly

Arkansas’s bear harvests showed slight declines during the 2019 season, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission biologists saying that could be mainly attributed to the productive hard mast crop.

According to Myron Means, the AGFC Large Carnivore Program biologist, hunters killed 432 black bears in 2019.

“Considering the mast crop that we had available across the state, it was actually a pretty good harvest for bears,” Means said. “I didn’t expect it to be quite that high.”

Baited sites and food plots do not have the same appeal to deer, bear, elk and other game species when acorns and other natural foods are abundant in the woods. Animals can find all the food they need without moving long distances, making them much more challenging to hunt. Last year’s bumper crop is likely responsible for decreases in harvest for many species.

The majority, 293 bears total, were harvested with archery equipment. Fifty-seven bears were harvested with muzzleloaders and 82 bears were taken using modern guns.

“That’s nothing new,” Means said. “Most of our bears are taken over bait on private land, and archery hunters get those bears on bait while they are still in pre-hibernation.”

Means says Arkansas bears are still at a stable to slowly expanding population, and recommendations going into the 2020 regulations cycle will be to increase the quota of bears allowed in Bear Zone 1 to 500 animals.

Pennsylvania Also Sees Record

The Pennsylvania Game Commission said hunters killed 4,653 bears during the 2019 season, a big jump from the 3,153 the previous year. 

Officials believe the state population is about 20,000 bears. It increased the season to 30 days in 2019, the most since 1931.

Proposed changes for the 2020 season include three weeks of archery bear hunting (which coincides with deer season), an early muzzleloader bear season in mid-October, and allowing bowhunters to carry a muzzleloader, among others.


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