New York’s bear bonanza

Albany — For eight straight years and 11 of the last 12, New York state hunters have harvested over 1,000 black bears – sometimes well over 1,000.

Three of the top five bear kills of all time have occurred during the past three hunting seasons.

And that’s not likely to change unless the bear seasons are riddled with poor weather that keeps hunters out of the woods.

With bear-hunting opportunities at their peak, and bruins expanding into many new areas of the state, hunters have a better-than-ever opportunity of encountering a black bear, whether they’re hunting for them or not.

“Bear hunting is pretty popular up here,” says DEC Region 5 wildlife biologist Ed Reed. “Especially during the early seasons. Some hunters go out just for bear. When conditions are good and bears are active they do pretty well. But incidental kills still account for the bulk of the harvest.”

Typically, most bears are taken by whitetail hunters who happen to encounter a bear while pursuing deer.  

But bear-specific hunting seasons have also been created in some areas of the state to address growing numbers of bruins. Last year, a newly created September bear season in several southeastern New York wildlife management units (3A, 3C, 3H, 3J, 3K, 3M, 3P, 3R, 4P and 4R) accounted for 337 bear kills and fueled a total statewide harvest of 1,628 bears – the second highest ever in New York.

Four more Northern Zone WMUs (6A, 6G, 6K and 6N) were opened to bear hunting last season, and DEC also opened bear hunting in all of upstate New York (all counties north of New York City). In the past, several Southern Zone units and even portions of the Northern Zone were closed to bear hunting.

New York’s black bear population is estimated at 6,000-8,000, with about 50-60 percent of those bruins inhabiting the Adirondacks. About 30-35 percent at in the Catskills, with the remaining 10-15 percent in central and western New York.

DEC’s biggest challenge in bear management is working to create a dedicated fraternity of bear hunters to keep bruin numbers in check. That’s one of the goals of the state’s Bear Management Plan. How that is to be accomplished remains to be seen, but the loosened regulations may have an impact.

So, too, do the growing numbers of bears and the more frequent sightings.

Still, some hunters pass on shooting a bear to avoid disrupting their deer hunting and dealing with a downed animal that can weigh two or three times as much as a whitetail.

Food availability typically dictates hunter success each season. If food is readily available, as it has been this year with the wet weather, bears tend to travel less simply because they don’t have to search for food.

That has been the case so far this summer, with nuisance bear complaints way down from previous years.

“It’s been real slow up here,” Reed said. “Just a few isolated incidents. We had one break-in in the Newcomb area and we had to euthanize that bear. And another bear had a lower jaw injury – we don’t know what happened – and we had to euthanize that bear, too.

“There’s lot of food out there; berries are looking good, raspberries and blueberries starting to ripen. So the bears are happy right now.”

If the early bear season in the Adirondacks doesn’t account for many bear harvests, the regular season does – and vice versa.

“It depends on weather conditions. If it’s dry the bears get desperate. If there’s good hard mast – acorns and beech nuts – the regular season tends to be a little better. But if the mast fails they tend to go into their dens early,” Reed said.

Last season, the total kill of 1,628 bears included 1,110 taken in the Southern Zone and 518 in the Northern Zone.

In the Southern Zone, 452 bears were harvested during the regular season; 337 during the early season; 305 during the archery season and 16 by muzzleloader hunters.

The Northern Zone breakdown was 291 during the early season; 159 via the regular firearms season; 42 by muzzleloaders and 26 by bowhunters.

The Southern Zone early bear season this year runs from Sept. 12-27, followed by an Oct. 1-Nov. 20 archery season; a Nov. 7-20 crossbow season (excluding WMUs 4J and 8C, where crossbows are not allowed); Nov. 21-Dec. 13 regular season; and Dec. 14-22 late muzzleloader and archery season.

The Westchester County bear season is an archery-only offering that runs from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31.

The Northern Zone bear seasons are:

• Early, Sept. 19-Oct. 16.

• Archery, Sept. 19-Oct. 23.

• Crossbow, Oct. 14-23.

• Muzzleloading, Oct. 17-23.

• Regular, Oct. 24-Dec. 6.

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