High demand for bear-harvest tags means a wait for hunters

Rhinelander, Wis. — Wisconsin has one of the largest black bear populations in the nation, yet some resident hunters remain frustrated by the long wait – five to nine years – to receive a Class A license that’s required to harvest a bear.

Wisconsin’s bear population is managed by hunting, offering a quality experience through a strict quota/permit system designed to ensure the long-term health of the population.

The number of preference points required to draw a permit depends on a several variables, including the number of tags available, the number of applicants, and the bear zone. For 2013, the minimum number of points ranged from three in Zone C to nine in Zone B.

Supply and demand

According to David MacFarland, DNR bear and wolf ecologist, interest in bear hunting has grown steadily during the past two decades to far surpass the number of available permits and the state’s bear population.

“The number of applicants has been increasing year after year,” MacFarland said. “We keep expecting it to tail off, but that just doesn’t seem to be happening.”

In 1986, 8,285 hunters applied for 844 permits and shot 503 bears. In 2000, more than 50,600 hunters applied for the 6,598 available permits that resulted in the harvest of 3,075 animals.

The harvest peak of 5,133 bears was reached in 2010, when more than 8,900 permits were issued from 97,400 applications. More than 104,000 hunters applied for 9,015 permits in 2012, and more than 106,000 applications were received for the 8,560 permits available for the upcoming season.

The 2012 harvest of 4,448 bears is the second highest on record. Hunters also bagged 4,009 bears in 2009, and 4,257 in 2011.

Scott Roepke, DNR assistant big-game ecologist, said there’s a misperception that many are drawing permits with no intention of using them.

“While this may be true for a few people, many who draw a tag are simply not able to hunt that year, and any unsold permits are included in the success-rate calculation that is used to determine the number of permits to issue the following year. In simple terms, if permits go unsold this year, more permits will be issued next year,” he said.

Earlier this year, the Natural Resources Board approved a reduction in the harvest quota to 4,000 bears – down from 4,600 – and 8,560 kill permits, 455 fewer than a year ago.

Population fluctuation

Wisconsin’s bear population is higher that it was 20 years ago, MacFarland acknowledged. Several studies have been conducted over the years to provide an accurate picture of the state’s bear population. In 1989, the population was estimated to be about 9,000, and about 13,000 in 2006.

A study that began in 2006 eventually revealed a population closer to 30,000 bears.

“We use a mark-recapture methodology where food containing tetracycline is placed in trees across the state, and the number of bait sites hit by bears is compared with the number of hunter-harvested animals that show signs of the drug,” MacFarland said. “Hunters are asked to submit rib and tooth samples from bears they kill.”

Due to variations in the bait distribution during that study, MacFarland said there was reason to believe that the result was biased slightly high. “But the evidence from that was strong enough to suggest the population was higher than previously thought,” he said. “The DNR responded by nearly doubling the bear quota.”

Preliminary results from a second population study that began in 2011 put the current population at about 18,500 bears.

“We met all our objectives in application and technique, and we’re pretty confident in that estimate,” MacFarland said. 

“We still have another year of data to analyze, which will be done this fall, but we have put some downward pressure on the population in zones A and B, but haven’t seen any significant population decline in zones C and D.”

The DNR divides the state into four bear zones. According to the preliminary 2011 population estimate, Zone A in north-central Wisconsin had about 5,324 bears; B in the northeast had 3,178; C in the southern two-thirds of the state had 4,798; and D in the northwest had 4,826.

For 2013, the DNR has substantially reduced the harvest quotas in zones A (down 40 percent from 2012) and B (down 50 percent), but increased them in C and D (both up 33 percent).

Hunter success

Even though Wisconsin hunters may have to wait several years for a kill tag, once a permit is received, the odds of harvesting a bear are better than 50 percent, MacFarland said.

“Our season framework and hunting regulations are geared toward high success rates,” he said. “We have success rates statewide in the upper 50s to low 60s percentage range, with some units even higher.”

Under current regulations, hunters realistically may be able to harvest a bear about once every 15 or 16 years.

“Now you can hunt every seven or eight years and expect to get a bear every other time you go, while other states have regulations in place that allow hunters to go more frequently, but the success rate is lower, so you end up harvesting about the same number of times,” MacFarland said.

He said Minnesota has a couple of rule differences that reduce the wait for permits.

“They don’t allow the use of hounds, they limit the number of baits a hunter can put out, and limit the number of baits on public land where hunters have to register their bait locations.”

Michigan bear hunters may hunt over bait and use dogs, but are limited to one of three, two-week periods. “They have considerable wait times of about three to five years for that first season. They may have to wait one or two years for the second season, while tags for the third season are sold over the counter,” MacFarland said. “They have a high success rate and lower participation in the first season.”

MacFarland said the DNR is meeting its bear-management objectives.

“At this point, it’s a matter of learning from the hunting community what they would like to see,” he said. “We’re putting together a survey that will be sent to applicants to get an indication of any changes they’d like. In the next year or so, we’ll be rewriting the state’s bear plan, and that will include a series of public meetings where we’ll be reviewing our hunting regulations.”

Roepke advised hunters to learn and understand the preference point system.

“We have hunters contact us with no preference points who want to be able to hunt this fall. This is not possible under the current system,” he said. “Start applying now and build points for a future hunt. If you fail to apply for a preference point at least once in any three consecutive years, you will lose your preference points.”

The question now is whether hunters prefer to have more hunting opportunities or a greater chance for success once they get a permit.

“If we want a high success rate, it means that fewer people can be out there,” MacFarland said.

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