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With Minnesota bear population down, so are hunting permits

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Minnesota’s bear season is just a week away, and hunters will see another conservative framework. State wildlife officials have been trying for the past few years to increase the state’s bear population.

Just 3,750 permits were issued for this fall’s hunt, which opens Sept. 1. That’s the same number of permits as last year and the lowest since the early 1980s. Last year, hunters took just 1,866 bears, the lowest harvest since 1988.

The bear population has declined from 20,000 to 25,000 in 2001 to the current 12,000 to 15,000, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

While DNR biologists aren’t concerned about overall bear numbers in the state, they are concerned that the average age of adult females has dropped from about 4 to 3. Females don’t have their first cubs until age 4, 5 or older, said Dave Garshelis, the DNR’s bear project leader in Grand Rapids.

“The age structure is driving the management,” Garshelis said. “A median age of females that’s continuing to drop is probably indicative of an overharvest. We’ve been taking more bears than the population can sustain, which is not necessarily a bad thing unless that’s not what you want.”

Dennis Udovich of Greaney, president of the Minnesota Bear Guides Association, agrees that the DNR should be conservative with permits again this fall.

“They have to be cautious right now,” Udovich said. “The age structure has gotten pretty low.”

Bait vs. natural foods Minnesota’s bear hunt is conducted in two zones, one with a quota and one without. Hunters must apply for permits in the quota zone, while they can buy licenses over the counter in the no-quota zone. The no-quota zone is on the fringe of the state’s main bear habitat.

About 80 percent of Minnesota bear hunters place bait in the woods and hunt from stands near the bait, Garshelis said. Bears come to baits more readily in years when natural foods such as acorns, hazelnuts and dogwood berries are scarce. This fall, those natural foods appear to be plentiful, Garshelis said.

Udovich said chokecherries are plentiful now, too, but if the woods continue to remain dry, those will dry up. He’s making sure most of his baits are near water, where bears can drink before or after feeding.

“You’ve got to be putting good stuff (bait) out and be next to water,” Udovich said.

Baiting bears does not ensure hunter success. Many bears come to baits only during the night, after hunting hours. The success rate among bear hunters has ranged from 21 to 30 percent in recent years.

About 18,000 hunters apply for licenses each fall. Unsuccessful applicants gain preference points for future drawings.

The bear hunt will continue through Oct. 12. The limit is one bear.

Why population declined After Minnesota’s bear population reached about 25,000 in the late 1990s, DNR wildlife officials decided to begin reducing it by issuing more permits to hunters. Hunting is the primary way the DNR keeps the bear population in check.

“There was a purposeful decision made at the time in the (DNR) bear committee not to let the population get so high that we couldn’t control it with the number of bear hunters in the pool,” Garshelis said. “We preferred to err on the side of having the population come down rather than escape (grow beyond control). As it turns out, in hindsight, we did err and the population came down. That’s not exactly what we wanted. We would have preferred to stabilize it.”

In 2001, hunters shot nearly 5,000 bears, the second-most ever, aided by a poor natural food crop.

“You can get one year of massive food failure and have a lot of bears being killed — more than you want,” Garshelis said. “You can take a lot of adult females and impact reproduction for years after that. (The 2001 harvest) had a massive impact on the trajectory (of the population) after that.”

Save a tooth for population study Again this fall, successful Minnesota bear hunters will be asked to submit a tooth from the bear they kill. The teeth are important to the Department of Natural Resources in determining the age structure of the bear population.

Hunters may register their bears in person at a big-game registration station, or by telephone or Internet. If you use the telephone or Internet option, you must complete the registration by picking up a tooth envelope at a bear registration station. Follow the instructions on the tooth envelope for submitting bear teeth.

Wisconsin bear season info Wisconsin’s bear season opens Sept. 3. In Zone C, where dogs are not permitted, the season runs from Sept. 3 to Oct. 7. In all other zones where dogs are permitted, the season runs Sept. 3-9 with the aid of bait and other methods not utilizing dogs. The season in zones where dogs are permitted continues Sept. 10-30 with the aid of dogs, bait and other legal methods. The season in those zones continues Oct. 1-7 with the aid of dogs only.

Wisconsin’s bear population has increased from about 9,000 bears in 1989 to 20,000 to 25,000, according to a 2012 study, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources reported.

Last fall, a total of 106,573 people applied for 8,560 bear harvest permits. During the 2013 season, 8,560 hunters killed 3,952 bears, for a 46 percent success rate.