They break into homes, wander through suburbs and even romp in backyard swimming pools. These days, it seems like another story of a wayward bear pops up in the news or on social media nearly daily. Mostly, the story has a good outcome for bears and people — nobody gets hurt. Occasionally, though, encounters with black bears take a violent turn. A New Jersey Boy Scout leader was mauled in front of a group of scouts in December after encountering a bear while hiking. An 85-year-old Montana woman died after being attacked by a black bear inside her own home in October.
Much of the increase in bear encounters could be linked to social media. Events that may have otherwise never made news a decade ago are now circulated widely across the Internet. However, a more realistic explanation would be black bear numbers are growing. In some places, populations are booming, so it’s only logical to expect an increase in human/bear encounters.
There’s no better example than New Jersey. As recently as 1995, bears were limited to the northeastern corner of the state. Now 20 years later, there have been bears reported in every county and an established population throughout the state, including some of the most crowded and developed regions. As many as 4,500 bears live in the northwestern corner alone, as of 2010.
“The habitat in our core bear region is ideal. Bears typically have one or two cubs, where it’s fairly common in northwestern New Jersey for bears to have three or even four cubs,” says New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife public information officer Lawrence Hajna. “Densities are as high as three bears per square mile.”
Florida is another example of the results of sound management. As early as the 1970s, just a few hundred bears roamed pockets of habitat throughout portions of the state. Now, more than 3,000 call Florida home. Thanks to sound management, the state held its first hunt in modern history in 2015. Hunters killed 304 bears, about what wildlife managers wanted.
Filed Under “No Kidding?”
New Jersey’s bear boom, along with the problems associated with the animals, can be attributed to a single factor: Anti-hunters. The Garden State opened its first bear season in recent history in 2003 under protest from various animal rights groups. The initial hunt was a response to a thriving bear population that was growing above what biologists call “social carrying capacity.” Simply put, society reaches a point where they no longer tolerate the animals and the myriad of problems associated with them. Despite the growing number of complaints and the sound science backing New Jersey’s first hunt, anti-hunters managed to stop the 2003 hunt. Thanks in part to support from then-governor Jim McGreevey and sympathetic courts, there was no hunt in 2004 and no hunts from 2006-09.
Other states have also changed their bear-management efforts as a result of actions by anti-hunters. For example, at the urging of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and other anti-hunting organizations, Colorado voters repealed the state’s spring bear season in 1992. The ballot initiative, pushed by HSUS and other groups, also outlawed the use of bait and dogs. Now the state is grappling with an overabundance of black bears. The state legislature is considering extending the fall season to include August as one way to cut the number of bears. The proposal would also legalize the use of “liquid scents.” Not surprisingly, animal rights groups are objecting.
Similar events are playing out in Oregon and Massachusetts. Both states restricted bear hunting methods and are now dealing with a spike in nuisance bear complaints. Massachusetts’ bear population increased by 700 percent, according to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. The agency extended the season from two weeks in 1996 to nearly eight weeks now, but hunting methods are limited and interest from hunters is tepid. As a result, the state now has an estimated 4,500 bruins.
As complaints rise and attacks on humans and pets make the news, there seems to be fewer objections to bear hunting in New Jersey and other states. Hajna says much of the anti-hunting sentiment directed at New Jersey’s bear hunts has simmered down, although “we see the same small group of protestors show up at the hunt headquarters every year.” Newspapers that ran editorials opposing hunts in the early 2000s have changed to editorials that support hunts, even if they are reluctant to admit their shift.
“The courts have sided with the state and said that our bear hunts are legal and we are well within the laws,” says Hajna. “It’s not a popularity contest. Wildlife management should never be decided by popular vote. It should be left to management professionals and it should be about managing the resource for everyone, including the bears, which is what our agency’s goals were all along. The alternatives to hunting are worse than hunting.”
Hajna is certainly correct. The only alternative is to euthanize problem bears — a costly, time-consuming effort that has the same result as a regulated hunting season. The good news is that hunting has proven to be the best tool for managing black bears. As New Jersey hunters put more pressure on bears, the total number of damage and nuisance complaints shrank from 2,174 in 2009 to 1,428 in 2015. The number of home entries also shrank from 47 to 20 during that same period. Livestock attacks, beehive damage, pet attacks and other property damage complaints shrank across the board.
Bear problems also declined in Vermont after the state wildlife agency lengthened the season four years ago. Vermont Fish and Game (VF&G) bear project leader Forrest Hammond says the state’s bear population was above objective, so they increased opportunities.
“Hunters are our best management tool. Fortunately, Vermont still has a strong hunting culture and there still is a lot of interest in bear hunting,” says Hammond. “We sold 12,000 bear tags last season, which is a pretty good number. I was a little surprised at how many tags we sold.”
Those hunters killed 669 bears, the third-highest harvest on record. It helps that the wildlife agency actively promotes the opportunity. Hammond says VF&G offers seminars specifically aimed at teaching new hunters how to have a successful hunt.
“We also show them what to do with a bear after they kill one,” says Hammond.
But even abundant hunting opportunities and a strong bear program combined with hunting seminars won’t control bears if hunters don’t step up. Despite a lengthy season along with legal methods that include everything from bait, dogs, trapping and still-hunting, Maine’s bear population continues to grow. According to a report by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (DIFW), the agency has not met its bear population objective goals since 2005. The population is estimated at around 30,000 animals and is continuing to grow. Biologists estimate a harvest of 4,500 animals is necessary to stabilize the population. In 2013, 10,800 hunters bought licenses, but they killed less than 3,000 bears.
“Back in 2008, we sold about 15,000 bear tags,” says DIFW spokesman Mark Latti. “We think the economic downturn about that time was a big factor in the decline. Fewer non-resident hunters were willing to hire an outfitter and spend the money required to travel to Maine and fewer residents were willing to spend money on bait, which requires a significant investment of time and money. Baiting makes up about 80 percent of our harvest.”
Other than actually paying hunters to shoot bears, there isn’t much more the agency can do. Tags are just $27 for residents and $74 for non-residents. Seasons start in August and run until late November, when most bears are already denned up for the winter. The DIFW recently allowed hunters to take a second bear by trapping, but trapping accounts for a small fraction of the total harvest.
“We are looking at new ways to increase the harvest and meet our goals,” says Latti. “Possibilities include allowing hunters to take multiple bears in a season and adjusting the season framework. There aren’t many other options.”
The good news for hunters are that bear populations throughout the country are growing. That means hunting opportunities have never been better, and they’ll get even better in the future as wildlife managers look for new ways to control growing bear numbers.
If that’s not incentive enough, consider this: The abundance of bears also means there are more big bears out there. Hunters everywhere are killing some giants. A Massachusetts hunter killed what is expected to be the new state record. It weighed 650 pounds. Pennsylvania hunters killed 21 bruins that weighed 500 pounds or more in 2014. A Virginia hunter killed a 728-pound beast in 2013 and a North Carolina man tagged a 782-pounder in 2014.
“It really is a good time to hunt bears,” says Maine’s Mark Latti. “We just need more people in the woods to help us manage our bear population.”