Bear harvest climbs

Albany — New York’s bear harvest was the second highest ever last year, the product of a growing bruin population and expanded hunting opportunities across the state.

Hunters killed 1,628 bears last season, an increase of nearly 300 from the 2013 tally of 1,358 and second only to the 2003 total of 1,863.

A newly created September bear season in several wildlife management units – WMUs 3A, 3C, 3H, 3J, 3K, 3M, 3P, 3R, 4P and 4R) in the Catskills and western Hudson Valley accounted for virtually all of the increase and more. A total ot 337 bruins were harvested during that Sept. 6-21 season designed to trim bear numbers in that region.

Heading into that early season, DEC wildlife biologist Jeremy Hurst said they were “counting on the early bear season in the Catskills and western Hudson Valley to increase bear harvest rates and reduce the population. In the past, bear hunting in the southeastern portion of the state has overlapped with deer season. With the new early season, hunters will be able to focus on bears without the deer distraction.”

DEC also last year established bear hunting seasons in all of upstate New York (all counties north of New York City). In the past, several WMUs in the Southern Zone and even parts of the Northern Zone have been closed to bear hunting.

Four more Northern Zone WMUs – 6A, 6G, 6K and 6N – were opened for bear hunting last season. Those units lie in the St. Lawrence Valley and the Tug Hill area.

In the Northern Zone, a uniform start date (Sept. 13) was established for bowhunting and the early firearms bear season was in place.

The moves were part of DEC’s newly adopted Black Bear Management Plan, which also included an educational component in an effort to boost public awareness of their role in preventing human-bear conflicts.

The season changes were designed not only to keep bruin numbers in check as they expand their range into new areas of the state, but also develop a bear-hunting fraternity – hunters who specifically target bears as opposed to the primarily incidental kills that now occur.

DEC’s black bear management efforts in recent years have been stalled by a lack of interest in hunting the animals. Most bear kills are made by deer hunters who simply encounter a bruin while pursuing whitetails.

Many hunters, however, pass on bear opportunities in order to avoid disrupting their deer hunt and having to deal with the biggest of the state’s big-game animals.

The new September season in some southeastern units pushed the total Southern Zone harvest over 1,000 for the first time ever, with 1,110 bears taken. In the past, the Southern Zone bear hunting area had been divided into southeastern and central-western areas. That changed when virtually the entire Southern Zone was opened to bear hunting last season.

In addition to the 337 killed during the September season, 305 bruins were taken by bowhunters, 451 during the regular season and 16 by muzzleloader hunters.

The 1,110 total for the Southern Zone was higher than 978 in 2013 and marked the first time ever the Southern Zone bear take topped 1,000. The previous high harvest was 983 in 2011.

The Southern Zone bear harvest has in recent years been driving up the total statewide kill, as evidenced by the Northern Zone tally of 518 bears last year. That number doesn’t even rank in the top 10 ever in the Northern Zone, although it jumped sharply from the 2013 total of 380. Of the 518 bruins tagged, 291 came during the early season; 26 during the archery season; 159 during the regular season and 42 during the muzzleloader offering.

The highest bear harvest ever in the Northern Zone occurred during 2013, when 1,370 bears were taken, including 730 during the early bear season in the Adirondacks. Those numbers fueled the record statewide harvest of 1,863 bruins.

About 60 percent of the bears shot last season were males; that percentage parallels the five-year average, DEC statistics showed.

And some of those male bruins were huge: DEC harvest figures showed five bears had a field-dressed weight of over 500 pounds, topped by a 646-pounder taken in the Hamilton County town of Wells.

In addition to the biggest bears, Ulster County hunters took the most bruins, at 192. Another 177 were tagged in Sullivan County, while Delaware County yielded 122 bears and Orange County 114.

In the Northern Zone, St. Lawrence County topped the harvest with 99 bruins. Lewis and Jefferson counties each had 85 bears taken.

Most of the state’s highest bear kills – 1,864 in 2003; 1,628 last year; 1,487 in 2009 and 1,358 in 2013 – have occurred in recent years. The harvest hasn’t fallen below 1,000 bruins since the 2006 take of 796.

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