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Bear hunters looking for another good season this fall

A contented black bear grazes on grass near Cloquet, Minn., in this trail-camera photo by Sean Hall of Cloquet. Hunters will be looking for big bears like this one when the 2017 seasons open Sept. 1 in Minnesota and on Sept. 6 in Wisconsin. Sean Hall photo1 / 2
A large black bear moves through an opening in the woods near Cloquet, Minn., in this trail-camera photo made by Sean Hall of Cloquet. Minnesota's 2017 bear season opens Sept. 1, and Wisconsin's opens Sept. 6. Sean Hall photo2 / 2

Last fall, Minnesota bear hunters were beneficiaries of a skimpy supply of natural foods in the woods. In other words, the bears were hungry and especially susceptible to the Gummi Bears and taco chips and sweet syrups that hunters used for bait.

The result: Hunters killed more bears than they had for several years. They shot 2,641 bears, the most since 2012.

Consequently, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has reduced the number of bear permits available to hunters from 3,850 last year to 3,350 this fall for the 2017 season.

"We shot too many bears last year," said Dave Garshelis, DNR bear project leader in Grand Rapids. "We're trying to make up for it."

The DNR is in the process of trying to rebuild the state's bear population, and last fall was a blip in that process. But it made for a lot of happy hunters. The success rate for bear hunters in the Quota Zone, where hunters must apply for a limited number of permits, was a record 50 percent.

This fall, natural foods seem to be fairly plentiful, said Dennis Udovich of Greaney, who is president of the Minnesota Bear Guides Association. Preseason baiting began Aug. 11. The season opens Friday, Sept. 1, and continues through Oct. 15. Hunters are allowed to take one bear.

"Of every bait we've checked, only one bait wasn't hit," Udovich said. "They're cleaning it up pretty good."

Minnesota's bear population is estimated at 12,000 to 15,000, Garshelis said. Hunters in the Quota Zone had to apply for the 3,350 permits available. Outside of that zone, hunters may buy permits over the counter.

"I think the (bear) numbers are still there," Udovich said. "Our numbers are really good. I've seen three bears with four cubs."

Garshelis said the state's bear managers are hedging on the side of conservatism in allowing fewer permits this fall.

"That's kind of my bias," he said. "Through the '80s and '90s, I was sort of talked into increasing the harvest to cap the bear population. We did that — and we overdid it. We had about a 40 percent decline in the bear population over about 12 years."

Don't shoot collared bears

DNR researchers have 35 radio-collared, ear-tagged bears in the woods as part of ongoing studies. Biologists ask that bear hunters avoid shooting collared or ear-tagged bears. It's best to look for the ear tags rather than collars, the DNR's Garshelis said, as the ear tags are more visible.

Wisconsin bear numbers good

Wisconsin's bear hunt begins Sept. 6 and varies by zone and hunting methods (dogs, bait or both). The state's bear population is estimated at 29,000 and is most dense across northern counties.

This fall, the Department of Natural Resources has issued 12,850 bear permits, the largest number ever issued, said Greg Kessler, DNR wildlife biologist at Brule. The largest number of applicants ever — 112,993 — applied for those permits.

"The downside is that as we increase permit numbers, success rates decline," Kessler said. "The statewide success rate was 41 percent in 2016, below the long-term success rate of 54 percent."

Hunters in northern Wisconsin often enjoy the highest success rates. Last year in Zone D, far northwestern Wisconsin, hunters had a 62 percent success rate. Kessler expects the success rate to be similar in Zone D this fall.

"Natural foods may be a concern for some hunters, as we have a very good blackberry and hazelnut crop that is ripening right now," Kessler said. "As that tapers off, we appear to have a decent acorn crop (both northern red oak and bur oak) which provides the hard mast that is high in fat just before the bears enter dens for the winter. Abundant natural foods often relate to more difficulty for some hunters to find and harvest bears."

Wisconsin hunters killed 4,682 black bears during the 2016 season. That was 11.5 percent higher than the 2015 kill of 4,198 bears, Kessler said. The three leading counties for bear harvest were Bayfield, Washburn and Douglas.