Nearly half of all Minnesota bear hunters who had a permit in a quota area this year shot a bear, a success rate that may be unequaled anywhere in the U.S. or Canada.
In the quota permit areas, hunters took 1,565 bears through Oct. 1 out of 3,400 permits issued for a 46% success rate. That’s tied with the 2017 season for second highest success ever; the 2018 season was the highest success rate at 50%.
“There are few, if any, other places in North American where you can go out and have a 50/50 chance at a black bear,” said Andy Tri, a wildlife biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ bear research team in Grand Rapids.
That compares to about a one-in-three hunters bagging a deer in Minnesota (one in five at bagging a buck) and about a one-in-three odds at bagging a wild turkey.
“This is a positive thing. There are fewer permits, fewer hunters, fewer conflicts, and the quality of the hunt has gone way up, with higher success,” said Dan Stark, the DNR’s large carnivore specialist.
Including the non-quota bear area nearly 6,800 hunters this year have taken 2,198 bear this season for a 32% overall success rate.
The DNR estimates the total harvest this year could hit about 2,300 by the time the season ends on Oct. 13. By far the majority of bears are shot the first two weeks of the season, which started Sep. 1. Bear activity at hunter bait stations drops dramatically as the season wears on and wild foods become more available, especially acorns, hazelnuts and other mast.
In fact, it was a slight delay in this year’s acorn crop in many areas that may have been the biggest factor in the increased hunter success, Tri said. While acorns were still ripening on the trees, bears visited bait stations with abandon.
“That first week was especially good. A lot of bears were harvested before the acorns ripened,” Tri said. Historically, bear hunting success rates have ranged from 14% to 30%, he said.
Northland bear guides reported phenomenal success, including Udovich Guide Service near Orr where 14 hunters took 13 bear.
While success rates remain off-the-charts high, the total number of bears shot in recent year is still way down from the 1990s and early 2000s when the DNR was being pressured by lawmakers and the public to kill more bears.
In 1995 17,000 bear hunting permits were issued, and hunters shot 4,956 bears, still a record. Another 4,936 bear were shot as recently as 2001. The big increase in bear harvest did reduce the number of bear complaints made to the DNR each year, from an average of 3,000 per year in the 1990s to about 700 per year now.
But then DNR biologists begin to see the bear population drop too fast. The agency went from issuing 6,000 quota area permits as recently as 2012 to just 3,750 in 2013 and only 3,400 this year.
Using a complicated formula and data from harvested bears, the DNR estimated this year’s pre-hunt bear population as between 10,000 and 13,000. But the modeling has a two-year delay, so the DNR tends to be conservative in its estimates.
Tri said that this year’s harvest may again have been too high for the state’s bear population to sustain. That’s up 30% from 1,770 shot last year.
“We wouldn’t want to do that (2,300 bears harvested) every year. We couldn't sustain that,” Tri said.
The hunting season is by far the biggest impact on overall bear numbers. Nearly all bear mortality is human-caused — hunting, nuisance bars trapped and shot, and vehicle accidents account for nearly 90% of bear mortality.
“We have almost no bears that die of old age,” Tri said.
Stark said it’s too soon to say whether the 2,300 shot this year reflects more bears in the woods than the DNR estimated or if the increase just reflected food conditions that pushed more bears to hunter’s bait.
“We’ll work on that over the winter,” he said.
Quota permits and season details for the 2020 season will likely be available in April.