Bruins on the move
Albany — New York hunters have been harvesting bears in near record numbers in recent years, and near-drought conditions this summer may set the stage for another high kill.
DEC officials said the dry weather will likely create a food shortage across much of the state which, in turn, will have bears on the move in search of food.
That makes them more visible to hunters.
“Nuisance bear complaints are up, which is not a surprise in these dry conditions,” said DEC Region 5 wildlife biologist Ed Reed, whose area includes the Adirondacks. “We’ve had rain just here and there, so we’re expecting a heavy early-season harvest of bears looking for food. If we get a good blast of rain in the next couple weeks that could change, but right now it’s dry.”
With bears expanding their range and seemingly increasing in numbers in much of New York, it’s likely the 2016 kill will be among the tops in history. That’s been the case in recent years: last season’s total take of 1,715 bruins was the second-highest ever, bumping the 2014 kill of 1,628 into the No. 3 slot.
The highest harvest ever, 1,863, occurred in 2003.
DEC Big Game Unit Leader Jeremy Hurst said the drought could be a major factor in this season’s kill, especially in the Adirondacks and Catskills, which offer early hunting opportunities in September.
“The nuisance bear complaints in the Catskills have been escalating recently,” Hurst said last week. “But we’re really inundated with complaints pretty much across the state. We’re on track to match our record number of nuisance bear complaints of 2012, when we had similar dry conditions.”
Hurst said the dry conditions “weren’t uniform” across the state, noting that central New York and the St. Lawrence Valley have seen a bit more rain this summer.
But DEC Region 6 wildlife biologist Steve Heerkens said the nuisance complaints are still pouring in from that area, “from Cranberry Lake all the way up to the river – bird feeders and garbage can stuff.”
In Lewis County, Heerkens said he’s handled complaints of bears getting into bee hives and “multiple chicken kills” at the hands of a bruin.
“It’s kind of interesting; we’re not getting a ton of calls in the Old Forge-Inlet-Big Moose areas, like we usually do,” he said. “But there has certainly been some bear activity this summer.”
The nuisance complaints have brought DEC personnel up close with some big bruins, including a Steuben County bear that weighed in at 560 pounds.
The heaviest bear taken last year was a field-dressed 520-pounder shot in Sullivan County near the town of Forestburgh.
Sullivan County led the state in total bear harvest last season with 199, followed by two other counties in the Catskill region – Delaware (149) and Ulster (135). Another 129 were taken in St. Lawrence County, and Steuben County yielded 115 bears.
Last season’s harvest was a product of 1,132 bears taken in the Southern Zone and 585 in the Northern Zone. Both numbers were up from 2014 (1,110 and 518, respectively).
The Southern Zone bear kill, in particular, has soared in recent years as bear numbers and bear hunting opportunities increase.
DEC has opened all of the Southern Zone to bear hunting, and has also established an early (September) bear season in some southeastern New York wildlife management units where bruin numbers continue to rise.
Another challenge remains, however: developing a dedicated bear-hunting culture in New York. Most bears are taken by deer hunters since those seasons overlap and chance encounters with bruins occur.
One step in doing that will come this year: DEC is finalizing a regulatory proposal that will allow youths ages 14-15 to harvest a bear during the Columbus Day weekend youth deer hunt.
While the dry conditions and the lack of food may contribute to a solid bear harvest this season, weather continues to play a major role as the season progresses.
“Summer weather often dictates hunter success, then again the onset of winter and the mast crop is a factor as well,” Reed said. If winter weather arrives early and there’s a lack of food, more bruins may head into their dens earlier than normal.
Heerkens advises hunters looking to tag a bruin to focus on the fringe areas of the Adirondacks – state lands close to the edge of the Forest Preserve. The Fort Drum military reservation, where hunting is allowed by permit, is another good option, he said.
“The periphery of the Adirondacks should be good as well. If you knock on doors and talk to farmers who have crop damage issues they may welcome bear hunters,” Heerkens said. “The September season should be pretty good. Bears will be out and about and visible, looking for food in the dry conditions.”
Reed says lower-elevation state lands in the Adirondacks could be productive if you find the food sources for bears.
2016 bear seasons
Early (in select WMUs): Sept. 17-Oct. 14
Early archery: Sept. 17-Oct. 21
Crossbow: Oct. 12-21
Early muzzleloading: Oct. 15-21
Regular: Oct. 22-Dec. 4
Early (in select WMUs): Sept. 10-25
Early archery: Oct. 1-Nov. 18
Crossbow (not in WMUs 4J or 8C): Nov. 5-18
Regular: Nov. 19-Dec. 11
Late archery/muzzleloading: Dec. 12-20
Regular (archery only): Oct. 1-Dec. 31