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Minnesota bear harvest down 33% from this time last year

Ample wild food in the woods for sows should mean healthy cubs born this winter.

Black bear
Minnesota's bear harvest is down 33% form this time last year apparently due to an abundance of wild food in the woods keeping bears away from hunters' bait.
Contributed / Wisconsin DNR
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DULUTH — Bear hunters in Minnesota are having a tougher time of this year than recent seasons thanks to ample wild food like berries and acorns in the woods, according to Minnesota Department to Natural Resources wildlife officials.

The bear season started Sept. 1 and, as of Sept. 26, hunters had registered 1,857 bears. That’s down 33% from the 2021 harvest of 2,770 at the same time.

The season runs through Oct. 16, but the vast majority of bears are harvested in the first few weeks of the season, so it’s not likely the harvest will go up much more.

Duluth neighborhood bear hibernating under family's front yard.

The 1,857 bears killed so far is down 35% from the recent peak of 2,992 at this point in 2020 and 2,146 in 2019 and is the lowest harvest since 2018, when 1,537 bears had been registered at this time.

When berries, acorns, hazelnuts and other natural foods are abundant like this year, bears are less likely to visit hunter bait piles, leading to fewer opportunities for hunters to shoot, DNR officials said. Last year’s harvest was likely up because the severe drought vastly reduced natural foods in the woods, sending bears scurrying to find human sources of food, be it hunters' bait or Northland residents' garbage cans.

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“It’s the natural food abundance that’s bringing that harvest total down,” said Dan Stark, large carnivore specialist for the DNR. “There's a lot of food in the woods this year in most places.”

Stark noted that the overall number of bear hunting permits available in the quota zones of the state were nearly the same as last year, with a few less permits in the north and a few more to the south. Overall, including the no quota or unlimited license area in central Minnesota, about 200 fewer licenses have been sold this year than in 2021.

Andre Tri, the DNR's bear project leader, said that well-fed sow bears should go into their winter dens in great shape and come out with a good number of cubs next spring.

“There are still lots of chokecherries, dogwood berries and acorns out on the landscape,” Tri said. “This will be a good winter for cub production indeed.”

Stark said it’s too early to tell how this year’s reduced harvest will impact the number of permits available in 2023. Those numbers will be crunched over the winter with a decision by spring.

Bear hunting in Minnesota is bucking a long-term trend by drawing more participants over the past decade even as other forms of hunting have declined in popularity.

Last year, 24,698 people applied for a quota-area bear hunting license in Minnesota, up 11% over 22,279 applicants in 2020 and up a whopping 57% since 2009.

Overall, including the unlimited, or “no quota,” bear range in the state, 8,990 bear hunting licenses were sold in 2021, up nearly 37% from 6,589 in 2013. Over that same time, Minnesota deer hunting license sales fell by about 12%.

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After 37 years as the DNR's top bear biologist, Garshelis will now focus on international bear conservation.

The increase in bear hunting interest comes as the state's bear population has slowly increased as well, from an estimated modern low point of 12,995 in 2013 to 15,247 in 2021.

The recent high numbers for both bears and bear hunters still remain below the historic high levels from the turn of the century when, in 2000, Minnesota had an estimated 18,268 bears and the DNR was trying to bring the population down, with bears expanding into farm field regions and causing trouble across their range. That year, a record 19,304 hunting licenses were sold and hunters bagged 3,898 bears, with nearly 5,000 killed in 2001.

The bear population then crashed due to the high hunter harvest, which is by far the highest cause of bear mortality. For the past decade, DNR wildlife biologists have been trying to walk a line between having enough bears to make the public and hunters happy, but not too many bears that they become a widespread nuisance to farmers and cabin owners.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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