DULUTH, Minn. — Despite reducing the number of permits available to bear hunters this fall, wildlife officials with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources say the bear harvest will be higher than expected.
That makes two years in a row, at a time when the DNR is trying to hold harvests down in order to increase the state’s bear population. Currently, the state has an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 bears, said Dave Garshelis, leader of the DNR’s bear project.
“We really thought by cutting back on quotas, we could successfully bring the population up,” Garshelis said. “I haven’t given up on that.”
Minnesota’s bear season opened Sept. 1 and continues through Oct. 15, but most of the bears are shot earlier in the season rather than later.
Wildlife officials were expecting a harvest of about 1,800 bears this fall, with no more than 800 of them female. Garshelis said he now expects the harvest to total between 2,000 and 2,050. Last year’s harvest, also higher than expected, was 2,641, and more than 1,000 females were taken.
The bright side of this year’s harvest is that the harvest of female bears is expected to be just under the 800 threshold, Garshelis said.
“It would have been nice to take 600 females this year,” he said. “We’ll still get an increase (in population) out of this season because we did OK with females, but it isn’t going to be the rate of (population) increase we hoped for.”
Tim Humphrey, a bear hunting guide who owns Aspen Outfitting in Cass Lake, said he doesn’t believe hunters are taking too many bears.
“I don’t think they’re overharvesting by any means,” Humphrey said. “I’ve seen the population abundant, and I’ve seen it decline. Now, in the last couple of years, there’s been an increase in the number of bears in the woods.”
A longer wait
As the number of bear hunting permits has been reduced in recent years, most hunters must wait three to four years just to get a permit. That has changed hunters’ behavior in some ways, DNR officials say. When hunters could get permits more readily and hunted most years, they were willing to pass up smaller bears while hoping a larger one would come to their baits. If a larger bear didn’t show, the hunters sometimes went home empty-handed. They accepted that because they knew they were likely to have a chance to hunt the following year.
Now, with permits reduced, hunters are willing to settle for smaller bears to be successful.
“They’re really focused on getting a bear,” Garshelis said. “People want to get a bear if they’ve waited a long time to get this permit.”
“If you make them wait four or five years for a bear, they’re not going to wait for trophies,” Humphrey said. “But the big bears are there.”
When more permits were available and more hunters were in the woods, many hunters were competing, in a sense, for the same bears. Reducing the number of hunters in an area doesn’t necessarily reduce the number of bears harvested, Garshelis said.
“The bear still gets shot by somebody,” he said.
Last year’s bear harvest was higher than expected in part because natural foods in the woods were scarce and bears came more readily to hunters’ baits. This fall, natural foods were generally more available, Garshelis and bear hunting guides said.
Collared bears taken
Five of the DNR’s 23 radio-collared bears in the Chippewa National Forest were killed by hunters this fall, despite the DNR’s preseason request that hunters avoid taking the collared bears. They are marked with brightly colored ear tags, and most have a bright tag attached to their collars, too.
Three of the collared bears taken were adult females, which are especially valuable in DNR research in the Chippewa National Forest. Those three represented half of the adult females the DNR had radio-collared in that study area.
It is not illegal to take a collared bear.
The collared bears in the Chippewa National Forest are part of a study to see whether reproduction is affected by reduced food supplies, Garshelis said.
“We are disappointed about the collared bears that were killed,” he said. “Three were females that would have had cubs this year.”
Female bears are more difficult to trap than males, Garshelis said.
“They’re more sedentary and more cautious,” he said.
As a result they are less likely to come to bait in the DNR’s traps, so the collared ones that were killed will be very hard to replace, Garshelis said.