Interest in bear hunt continues to grow

(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Grand Rapids, Minn. — Hungry bears in Minnesota typically means happy hunters. This fall, ravenous bears in many places may mean many ecstatic bear hunters.

As it’s affected most other natural things in Minnesota, drought also is touching the world of black bears, where limited rainfall has resulted in spotty food sources in some places, and complete berry busts in others.

Whether it’s a lingering COVID hangover or perhaps hunters just recognizing good prospects when they see them, the number of applicants for this fall’s bear hunt surged again in 2021, to more than 24,600. That’s in a range not seen in two decades and is a couple hundred more than a year ago when most outdoor sports saw increased participation by too-long-cooped-up Minnesotans.

That’s not to discount the state’s bear hunt itself.

“We have some of the best bear hunting in the country,” said Andy Tri, the Minnesota DNR’s acting bear project leader based in Grand Rapids. Tri points to a harvest of about 3,200 bears in the state last year and, more impressive, a 60% success rate among hunters in the quota area.

“The word’s out, I guess,” Tri said.

Bear-hunting license sales of about 8,880 last year were the highest since 2012. And while most hunters already have purchased licenses for this fall (about 300 surplus licenses were sold Wednesday), a good chunk of the purchase remains – those sold over the counter to bear hunters in the state’s no-quota area.

Tri said the bulk of last year’s take occurred in the state’s midsection – the transition zone. Dry conditions in the northeastern part of the state led to greater hunter success there, too.

Things are looking up again – for bear hunters, anyway – this year.

“I anticipate an above-average harvest this year – similar or higher than last year,” Tri said.

Bear population management in the state is a balancing act, he said. One goal is for bears to be able to weather a poor food-production year (like this one) and for few adjustments to be made in hunting permit levels. Other considerations are bear-nuisance complaints (at residences and regarding crop damage) and how long hunters in specific areas must wait to get quota-area hunting permits.

Complaints originating at residences, typically, Tri said, are “a good index of the inability of people to secure attractants” – typically garbage containers or bird feeders.

He said he expects eventually to receive more crop damage reports involving bears. The drought, however, has affected crops in some areas, and, further, it’s early yet; corn has yet to mature in many places.

Berry, berry bad

As is usually the case, natural foods available to bears varies by area. This year that may be even more notable. While severe or extreme drought blankets most of Minnesota, there are some areas that actually received timely rains – rains that have inspired the growth of the berries favored by bears.

Tri said he’s seen first-hand and heard from DNR area managers who say foods such as raspberries and black berries look pretty good, albeit the berries themselves might be smaller than normal. And, for future dining, red oak acorns are abundant in some locations.

Then, there’s the northwestern portion of the state.

“In the northwest, the drought is particularly bad,” Tri said. “Essentially, the raspberries are a bust, the blueberries are a bust, and the cherries are a bust.”

Other managers reporting back to Tri have said that the natural food crop, upon closer inspection, is better than anticipated.

And, whether bears find their preferred sources or not, they’ll find something to eat that’s available in the woods.

“They’ll change their diets,” Tri said. “They’re super adaptable.”

Baiting begins

Whether those less-favored natural foods can compete with tasty hunter baits remains to be seen. Bear baiting in Minnesota begins Aug. 13.

The DNR recently reminded bear hunters of baiting changes this year: “Beginning with the 2021 bear-baiting season, hunters no longer need to use email addresses to register their bait stations. The use of email addresses had caused registration issues in the past,” according to a news release.

“Effective this year, hunters will simply need to provide their first and last names, date of birth, and their DNR customer number. Outfitters will need to provide their first and last names, date of birth and license number, and identify whether they are a master bear outfitter or a resident bear outfitter,” the release said.

Tri also reminds hunters not to shoot collared bears.

According to the DNR’s website: “Bear management in Minnesota is based on multiple sources of information: statistics from the bear hunt, assessment of natural food conditions, a population model based on the ages of harvested bears (obtained from teeth submitted by hunters), and results of a long-term, active bear research program. Minnesota has one of the longest, DNR-run bear research programs in the country. The core of this research program is radio-collared bears. Because long-term research on individual collared bears is so crucial to management, we ask hunters not to shoot collared bears.”

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