Amazing progress. There is no better way to describe the cumulative opinions of the biologists and researchers devoted to bear issues in the U.S. and Canada. I've been following projects and initiatives in the bear world for over four years now, and I want to put some perspective on the results to date.
In 2014, I reported that 75 percent of the 43 responding states and provinces evaluated their bear hunting opportunities as "Very Good" or "Excellent." This year that category has grown to 85 percent, and looks to continue an upward climb. Six states showed notable increases in their bear harvest between 2015 and 2016, and 98 percent of respondents evaluated their bear numbers as "Stable" or "Growing." Notably, Pennsylvania has "huntable bear populations in over three-quarters of the state." Impressive.
In 2015, I told you about a possible spring season in Ontario, Canada. I'm happy to report that Ontario now indeed does have a spring season pilot project that will last until 2020, and nonresidents can participate. With one of the largest black bear populations in North America (numbering around 100,000, and second only to British Columbia), this will surely be a fantastic opportunity for hunters.
One of my favorite projects to follow was the New Jersey initiative to have an archery-only season, which became a reality in 2016. Mike Madonia, the Black Bear Project Leader, said that the past season had a record harvest of bears, and the archery-only hunt in October was a major reason why. Over 30 states contributed hunters to New Jersey bear hunting, and the success rate was solid at 30 percent. New Jersey bears increased substantially over the last three seasons, and bear numbers are projected to increase again as this Forecast goes to print.
Understanding food crops is the biggest key to successful bear hunting. Forage varies widely from east to west, but it should be a basic research topic for anyone looking to tag a bruin this year. Also, there are multi-species opportunities that can take advantage of not just food crops, but also the time of year afield. For example, Vermont has deer and bear seasons that overlap for several weeks.
A spring season is available in most Canadian provinces, but only in nine U.S. states (all of which are in the West, including Alaska). Within the nine states, a few have specific restrictions to units or regions that are unique (of note, 55 percent of Montana's statewide bear harvest happens during the spring season, and mostly in the northwest region).
Some places require a guide (all of Canada, for example), but others highly recommend it. Maine, for example, has a very detailed and well-organized guide referral service that is designed to make your hunt a success (maineguides.org). With all these factors in mind, this data table will get you moving in the right direction based on your needs, but it's important to consult with state or provincial wildlife departments for specific rules and regulations.
Another change to pay attention to this year is the "Remarks" section of the data table, as several of the respondents included guidance on areas or units where there are higher bear densities and hunter success rates. But sheer numbers often overwhelm other information, like the fact that Washington, Idaho, and Oregon each have upwards of 20,000 bears, and Wisconsin has a success rate of over 50 percent. Hunters must assess what their goals are for a hunt, as well as their abilities and expectations before they start evaluating what all this data means.
We owe these devoted bear biologists and researchers a tip of the camo hat for the passion and hard work that goes into what we as hunters ultimately benefit from. A bear manager's time is precious, and the generous sharing of information is completely voluntary. I've had the pleasure of talking with many of them at length about not just hunting but also the goals and challenges of what it takes to keep moving forward. I'm honored to receive their insights and cooperation with a yearly project of this scope. Many thanks, and good hunting.