DEC wrestles with bears
Albany — New York wildlife officials are looking at expanding bear hunting opportunities in an effort to deal with growing numbers of bruins across much of the state, including areas where they’re now not legally hunted.
Some of those changes – including the possibility of allowing bear hunting virtually statewide, sources said – could be put into effect as early as the 2014-15 season.
DEC wildlife biologist Jeremy Hurst wouldn’t elaborate on the possibility of further expanding bear hunting in the state, saying “we’re not at the point yet where there’s been enough internal review to discuss them (publicly).”
Hurst did say, however, that bruins are continuing to show up in areas of the state where they’ve never before been seen.
“We certainly have bears living in areas where there’s no hunting now, and in some cases populations could be sustainable and the habitat is good,” he said. “But there are other places bears are getting into and a lot closer to environments that are not suitable for bears.”
In recent years, bear sightings have occurred within the city limits of Rochester and Syracuse – incidents that underscored the movement of black bears into new regions.
Too, DEC has in recent seasons expanded bear hunting opportunities, both in additional wildlife management units (notably across southeastern New York) and by stretching the bear season to coincide with the single biggest hunting day of the year – the opening day of the Southern Zone firearms deer season.
Those moves resulted in additional bear harvests, but bear numbers continue to grow.
Hurst did confirm that another management option may be the creation of an early bear hunting season in the southeastern New York bear hunting region, similar to the September offering held in the Northern Zone (Adirondacks).
“That would be one option,” he said. “Since bear populations in the core portion of the Southeastern bear range haven’t shown the modest decline (in bear numbers) that’s desired, we’ll need to look at something different, something that will increase harvest in that core area. We have to change the way we hunt and intensify harvest in specific areas.”
Another option that has apparently been discussed is allowing hunters to harvest two bears in a given area. That two-tag system, however, “would likely have some impact, but probably minor,” Hurst said.
DEC’s wildlife biologists grapple with the reality that while hunting is the major management tool in keeping bruin numbers in check, most bears are shot by deer hunters who happen to encounter a bear while pursuing whitetails.
Many deer hunters pass on shooting a bear in order not to disrupt their deer hunting by dealing with a massive carcass.
“A 120-pound deer is easier to handle than a 250-pound bear,” Hurst said. “And there’s certainly some learning associated with how to handle bears, and a misconception on the quality of the meat.”
DEC Region 6 wildlife biologist Steve Heerkens says hunters “who haven’t killed a bear are kind of excited to shoot one.” But officials are trying to gauge how many hunters may pass on a bear if they’ve already killed one in New York or on a hunting trip out of state for bear.
Some New York hunters want baiting of bears allowed in New York, as it is in some Midwestern states as well as in Maine.
“Other states have that, and baiting is by far the most popular’ it’s what people want to do,” Heerkens said.
Hurst says that management decision, however, would rest with state lawmakers since it’s set by statute and isn’t a decision of DEC’s wildlife staff.
“The reality of it is it (baiting) could be a very viable management technique,” Hurst said.
While Hurst stopped well short of tipping DEC’s hand as to what management options are being considered, he did say they’re looking at “increasing our ability to manage bear populations in areas where they’re currently not hunted. Right now, the de facto management action in those areas is for population growth.”
Expanding bear hunting in the Southern Zone in recent seasons has helped limit the expansion of bears into new areas and to keep bear density down. But bear numbers continue to grow in the Southeastern range, despite the season date change to extend the season and allow bear hunting on the busiest single hunting day of the year.
“Since bear populations in the core portion of the Southeastern bear range haven’t shown the modest decline that’s desired, we’ll need to look at something different, something that will increase harvest in that core area,” Hurst said.
Heerkens, whose region includes the bear hot spot of Old Forge and Inlet in the Adirondacks, saw a record 150 nuisance bear complaints last year and had to euthanize 10 problem bears – more than ever before. “But there are more nuisance bear complaints in the Catskills,” he said. “They deal with hundred and hundreds of complaints every year. It’s crazy down there.”