On the Ridge: It’s black bear season

Published: 9/18/2019 8:45:18 PM
Modified: 9/18/2019 8:45:08 PM

While the first days of autumn will arrive as a steamy reminder of summer, hints of fall are everywhere. There are signs that autumn is close at hand, and in Franklin County, this signals the opening of hunting season with the first season for bear hunting quickly coming to an end.

Marion Larson, Chief of Information and Education at Mass Wildlife, has preliminary reports that 112 bears have been checked in thus far. (This figure does not include bear that may have been checked in at check stations that only use paper forms). The breakdown by county goes like this:

• Berkshire County — 48

• Franklin County — 23

• Hampden County — 18          

• Hampshire County — 16          

• Worcester County — 7

Throughout New England, bear population estimates range between 45,000-50,000. That’s an impressive number considering just a few decades ago it was half that total. Most of the bear population resides in Maine, but numbers in New Hampshire and Vermont have doubled since the 1990s.

In Massachusetts, bear numbers are increasing by about eight percent annually. Even Connecticut is having problems with growing bear populations, with the estimated total now at 800-900 bears, up at least half from a survey done in 2013. I’ve seen black bears when deer hunting in Connecticut at least twice now. And talks of establishing a limited Connecticut bear season are now in process.

In Massachusetts, bear populations have increased steadily since the 1980s with an estimated 5,000-6,000 bears statewide. As a result, the entire state was opened to bear hunting in 2015, giving hunters three separate seasons to bag a bruin. The September season began on the 3rd and runs until Sept. 21. The second season runs Nov. 4-23, immediately followed by the Dec. 2-14 season which coincides with shotgun season for deer. The limit remains one bear per calendar year. And with hunters taking less than six percent of the population yearly, don’t expect the numbers of black bears to be anything but on the rise in the future.

Up until around 2014, hunters were taking less than 200 bears annually. But since the statewide opening, and added hunting opportunities, the tally has never been less than 200. In 2016, hunters took 283 bears which was a record harvest, though totals haven’t come close to that number since. With bear numbers on the rise however, and new options being available to everyone, hunters in 2019 still have a great chance of raising the tally.

Unlike other states, baiting and running bear with dogs is prohibited in Massachusetts, which means it all boils down to preseason scouting, building relationships with farmers who grow agricultural crops, the weather conditions, and natural food availability. I’ve noticed while preseason scouting for deer that this year that there’s a decent mass crop with wild apples everywhere you’d expect them. While this all bodes well for hunters, the problem of not having enough bear hunters to significantly decrease the population remains despite added opportunities.

In Maine, biologists would like to see at least 4,000 bears taken annually, but hunters have come nowhere close since 2005, barely taking 3,000 annually. Across the border in New Hampshire, biologists hope to reduce their bear population by about 30 percent over the next decade, but that number seems doubtful. And in Vermont, an early bear season was started in hopes that more hunters would hit the woods. This all sounds familiar while solidifying the fact that New England has lots of bears with fewer hunters pursuing them, despite generous hunting seasons and easy to obtain permits. That all adds up to more serious problems in the future.

But guys like Greenfield’s Ron Gleason, who does seminars illustrating all of this, and Donnie Graves, who works with farmers on crop damage issues that now tally over $300,000, are doing their best to help hunters realize how exciting bear hunting can be. They’re also educating them about the many reasons for participating. Montague’s James Garanin, a longtime archery hunter, recently shared an idea that might possibly generate some interest.

“Increasingly, I’ve been frustrated with the timing and duration of the Massachusetts black bear season,” Jimmy says. “The Fish and Wildlife Board allows bear hunting for roughly three weeks in September, the same now in November, and then through shotgun season for deer. In past years during archery hunting for deer, which starts in mid-October, I have been blessed and frustrated by seeing multiple bear I can’t harvest because the second season for bear hasn’t opened yet. I would love to see the State Board include bear season with the beginning of archery season for deer as this could be another step in helping reduce the population.”

And Jimmy just may have something here. If the numbers truly are so lopsided, and we know they are, why not add that period during the archery season? That would add another opportunity for more participation and, just maybe, another tool in a continued attempt at controlling an already “out of control” population.

Joe Judd is a lifelong hunter and outdoorsman. He is an outdoor writer, seminar speaker, consultant and active member of the New England Outdoor Writers Assoc. Joe is also a member of the Quaker Boy Game Calls, Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s Pro-Staff.

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