Minnesota’s bear population appears to be on the increase, Department of Natural Resources officials say, and the state has issued a few more permits this year than in recent years.
The state’s black bear season opens Thursday and will continue through Oct. 16.
Minnesota’s bear population is estimated at 12,000 to 15,000, said Dave Garshelis, DNR bear project leader. A total of 3,850 permits have been issued for the main bear range, the so-called “quota zone.” That’s up from 3,700 last year. Outside of that zone, hunters may buy bear licenses over the counter. Minnesota hunters typically must wait about three years before they’re selected to receive a bear license in the state’s lottery.
Last year, hunters took 1,971 bears, up from 1,627 in 2014 and 1,866 in 2013.
Hunters’ success will be driven, as always, by how much natural food — berries, hazelnuts and acorns — is available in the woods. Bears are less apt to come to hunters’ baits when natural foods are more plentiful.
Garshelis said the abundance of dogwood berries, blackberries, hazelnuts and other foods appears to be good. But he said those foods seem to have peaked early and may be on the decline now, which could bode well for hunters.
Dennis Udovich, a bear guide from Greaney, concurred with that assessment.
“We’ve got an exceptional crop of plums, lots of hazelnuts and chokecherries,” said Udovich, president of the Minnesota Bear Guides Association, on Tuesday. “Right now, I’m excited. Every bait was hit today. They’re hitting ’em pretty hard. There’s lots of natural foods, but what we’re doing is working pretty well.”
The median age of harvested female bears in Minnesota was about 4 in the early 1990s, 3 years old in the early 2000s, and only 2.5 years in the past few hunting seasons, Garshelis said. Concurrently, the population was estimated to have declined from a high of 20,000 to 25,000 in the mid-1990s to its current level.
But last year, for the first time in many years, the median age of bears taken by hunters increased.
“That’s a promising sign that the population may be rebounding,” Garshelis said, and he said the median age of male bears killed last fall also was slightly higher than previous years — though he cautioned that one year’s data doesn’t indicate a trend.
The DNR estimates the age of harvested bears by counting rings in the bear teeth submitted by hunters.
Another interesting statistic in last fall’s harvest of 1,971 bears is that 66 percent were males — the highest of any bear harvest since the establishment of bear license quotas in 1982. Just 666 females were taken, Garshelis said.
“It’s a good thing in terms of allowing the population to increase,” Garshelis said. “But we don’t fully understand it.”
Usually, male bears make up about 61 to 62 percent of the harvest, he said.
The number of bear permits was increased this fall primarily because of so-called “nuisance” bear activity in some areas, particularly west of Brainerd, Garshelis said. In that area, where demand for bear licenses is high, most hunters had been waiting at least four years to be selected for a license in the DNR’s lottery. The number of permits in that zone was raised from 150 to 250, Garshelis said.
Also, the number of permits was increased in zone 51, west of Duluth, including parts of St. Louis, Aitkin and Carlton counties.