Sow survival: Know how to spare female bears

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Grand Rapids, Minn. — There are those who say this year’s lack of natural foods in the bear woods, driven by drought, hasn’t been this dire since 1995. And when bears are hungry, they tend to hit bait sites more frequently, leading to high success rates for bear hunters.

That scenario, however, comes with the undesired downside of female bears also coming more willingly to bait sites. Female bears, especially those with cubs, generally are more cautious and less likely to visit baits … except in years like this one.

“When you harvest a lot of the reproductive females, it takes much longer for the population to recover from that harvest,” said Andrew Tri, the Minnesota DNR’s acting bear project leader.

But not shooting reproductive females, which many conscientious hunters try to do, can be difficult, especially for those new to bear hunting.

Last year, in the state’s quota zone, about 45% of the harvest was female bruins.

“When you’re trying to grow a population, that is hard with a harvest like that,” noted Tom Rusch, the DNR’s Tower-area wildlife manager.

Tri reviewed the recent history of bear hunting in the state, going back to the 1980s, when the current quota system was put in place.

“There were a lot of reproductive females on the landscape, and it stayed that way until the population began to decline,” he said.

Typically, about 60% of the state’s bear harvest is males. Further, female bears sometimes may not reach reproductive age until their fifth or sixth year, particularly when they’ve been faced with poor food years similar to 2021. That’s why shooting reproductive bears can be so detrimental to the population and biologists’ goals.

Adult females bears that haven’t reproduced yet are less paramount, Tri said, to population goals, than are female bears that already have reproduced.

“But you still have to have a certain percentage of the younger females escaping harvest to replace the older females that are killed,” he said.

Some of those adult females without cubs in tow could be pregnant, Tri noted.

“You could be killing the potential for four of five years (of a new generation of bears) that coming January,” Tri said. “It would make it easier if (male) bears had antlers.”

Rusch, a bear hunter himself, lamented the effects of taking higher percentages of females in back-to-back years, as could happen this fall.

“If we are going to grow this population, we have to protect females,” he said. “Seeing genitalia is not always an easy thing, and that moment of truth can come in the last hour of daylight. Those things make it hard, but let’s do the best we can.”

Rusch said hunters should be motivated to avoid female bears.

“You are going to wait five or six years to get drawn for a bear tag when it used to take two years,” he said of the dynamic that occurs when a higher number of reproductive females are killed. “We don’t shoot does after tough winters. We are in a similar situation with bears, so you have to pass on (females).”

But, longer waits for bear tags can lead to fewer experiences for young hunters.

A few of the more experienced bear guides offered some advice.

Dennis Udovich, a guide from Greaney, said he does a “101” lesson with all of his bear hunting clients.

“If they take their time, there are some things they can do to identify females,” he said, noting that he instructs his hunters to at the very least pass on any sows with cubs.

“A lot of times, however, the cubs don’t come in,” he said.

Udovich said if an adult female bear turns around and shows its backside, “There is a little tuft below the vent.”

That fur can also appear wet from urination.

“If you’re close to a (bear), like 20 yards, you can spot that, but the bear has to turn a little bit to see it,” he said.

Also, the nipples of adult females often can be spotted.

Udovich stresses that bear hunters, especially less experienced hunters, take their time.

“If you study that bear, you calm down,” he said. “You are focusing, rather than, ‘there’s a bear; shoot it.’”

Dan Goble, who has guided bear hunters since 1988 near Northome, said he tells his clients not to shoot unless they are absolutely sure there are no cubs. He’s even willing to sit with hunters who are particularly concerned that they might make a mistake.

“You tell them the same old stuff,” he said. “The face (of a female bear) is thinner. It is a more pointy nose. When you get a license only every so many years, you get excited. It’s hard to use good judgment unless you’ve hunted them for years. But you absolutely do not shoot a sow with cubs.”

Goble said if cubs are with a sow, they tend to be behind the mother.

“It could be a few minutes (that cubs are trailing the sow) at the most,” he said. “Most of the time, it is seconds. And 90% of the time, the cubs will be there before her.”

Goble said the ears of females appear to be bigger in comparison to their heads, whereas the ears appear smaller on the heads of boars, which generally have larger heads.

Goble uses trail cameras at his baits and won’t put hunters at baits when they have been frequented by sows with cubs.

“I’ll keep that bait station going, to keep them going there, though,” he said.

Hunting guide Dave Hughley of Onamia, a bear guide since 1984, said he tries not to put too much pressure on his hunters.

“We don’t want them to shoot (a sow with cubs), but we are not going to get mad if they do,” he said.

Bear hunters that haven’t done a lot of bear hunting are going to have a hard time being patient and taking the time to determine the sex of a bear, Hughley said.

“It’s pretty hard to control that,” he said.

Among the other indicators, Hughley said, female bears tend to have smaller feet.

“If you have big, wide feet coming in (to a bait), that is pretty much a boar,” he said.

Jimmy Wallner, a new guide from Grand Marais, said that sows’ midsections tend to be lower to the ground.

And, “They won’t have that big blocky head, and they will be more cautious,” he said, noting that although cubs may lag behind, they are usually leading the way.

Females tend to scatter things around, rather than big male bruins that just move big stuff out of the way.

“Sometimes, it is tough to tell,” he added.

Wallner said another tip-off is the way a bear approaches a bait. Even a smaller male bear is going to come in “like he owns the place,” he said. “If they come in cautious, that is probably a female.”

Wallner said he won’t put hunters on baits that have been hit by sows with cubs. And, he agreed that getting young hunters to be patient is an uphill battle.

“They get so excited, they just want to fill a tag,” he said. “But my bears have to work to get into the bait, so (hunters) can really get a look at them.”

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