2002 bear tally marks lowest kill since 1988

Associate Editor

Grand Rapids, Minn. Throughout the season, reports indicated the
2002 bear harvest would be low. Now, officials know just how
low.

State DNR bear specialist Dave Garshelis said Monday that
registrations currently total 1,858, making this year’s bear kill
the lowest since 1988, but just slightly below the 1996 harvest of
about 1,875 bruins. Furthermore, it follows a year when a
near-record 4,940 bears were harvested.

“It shows, you really can’t predict,” Garshelis said.

The 2001 and 2002 harvests nearly mirrored the 1995 and 1996
harvests, both cases of a very low harvest following a very high
harvest. The common denominator in both cases was the availability
of natural food sources for bears. Generally, a good food year
means a poor harvest, and vice versa. This year’s natural “boom”
crop was acorns.

“In 1996, there ended up being a tremendous debate about what
happened,” Garshelis said. “People both within and outside of the
DNR thought we’d overharvested bears in 95.” A survey estimate of
the bear population hadn’t been done since 1991. However, a
tetracycline study in 1997 showed a population near the estimate,
and growing. The 1997 harvest increased to 3,200, followed by
harvests of 4,100, 3,600, and 3,900 in 1998, 1999, and 2000,
respectively. (See table, below.)

Could those same concerns regarding possible overharvest be
raised again? Perhaps, Garshelis believes. Fewer bear were seen by
hunters, and fewer were harvested. And, reports of nuisance bears
have decreased for about five years. However, that’s likely due to
other factors.

Applicant numbers drop

During the mid to late 1990s, the number of applicants for bear
licenses was at or near 30,000. That was during a time when, prior
to 1998, the number of permits available was near 10,000. In 2002,
with 20,610 bear permits available, the number of applicants was
below 22,000. (See table, below.)

“That’s 5,000 less than last year, and last year was 3,000 less
than the year before,” Garshelis said. “The last time it was this
low was 1987, and that was when the number of applicants was on the
increase.” In 2002, he added, six of 11 permit areas were
undersubscribed (the number of applicants was fewer than the number
of permits available).

The actual number of hunters in 2002 wasn’t far off the pace of
past years, even though the current licensing procedure could
discourage sales, Garshelis said.

“In the past, hunters drawn for a permit had to buy their
license well in advance,” he said. “Now, with the Electronic
Licensing System, they can buy the license any time before, or
during, the season. Hunters will monitor their bait, and if there’s
no activity, they won’t buy a license.”

Season back to normal

After a couple years of experimentation in the form of an early
season opener for two years and a two-bear limit last year, regs
returned to “normal” this year, Garshelis said.

Only in the “no-quota” zone could hunters take more than one
bear, and the season opener returned to the conventional Sept. 1.
That satisfied opponents of the early season who said there were
conflicts between bear baiters and

other users of the woods. Furthermore, it wasn’t accomplishing
what DNR officials had hoped for (an increased harvest), Garshelis
said.

Study results pending

This past summer, DNR crews again commenced a study of the bear
population using baits containing tetraclycline, a chemical in the
food that turns up as visible in the bones of bears. The last such
study was conducted in 1997. A similar study is conducted in
Michigan.

Hunters turn in samples of rib bones from harvested animals.
This data is used to estimate the bear population.

The impressive natural food crop in the forests this summer may
influence the study, Garshelis said. Typically, bears “hit” about
1,000 of the 3,000 tetracycline baits set out. This time, only
about 700 were hit.

“It could cause a bias in the estimate, though it can be worked
out next year if there’s a normal food crop,” he said. Rib samples
can be collected from bears harvested next year, as well.

Garshelis said the agency selects the midpoint of its estimate
30,000 bears when asked about the current population. However,
until the new tetracycline study is complete, the confidence
interval of the population estimate is quite high. Anywhere from
20,000 to 40,000 animals could be roaming the state.

In February, the state bear committee will meet to discuss the
past season, along with what to expect next season.

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