The Michigan bear harvest by hunters during 2018 was the lowest it has been for the past four years, according to preliminary registration figures released by the DNR, but the low harvest does not mean there has been a decline in the bear population. In fact, there are now more bears in the state than there have been for many years, according to DNR estimates. An abundance of natural foods and less than ideal weather conditions during parts of the seasons contributed to the decline.
Hunters only registered 1,489 bears in Michigan during 2018 seasons, according to the DNR, compared to 1,912 in 2017, 1,615 for 2016 and 1,718 during 2015. State licensed hunters tagged 1,432 of the bruins registered during 2018 versus 57 by tribal hunters. A total of 1,141 of the bears registered last fall were taken in the Upper Peninsula (UP) and 291 were shot in Lower Peninsula (LP) bear management units (BMUs). Most of the state’s bears live in the UP.
On September 1, 2017, the DNR estimated that there were 10,799 black bears more than a year old in the UP compared to 8,000 in 1992. Growth of the UP bear population really accelerated starting in 2012 in response to a major reduction of the number of bear licenses issued by the state, which has remained in effect since then. The number of bears in the UP more than a year old increased by more than 2,000 or 24% since 2012.
The LP bear population increased at an even higher rate, according to the DNR, going up by 72% between 2012 and 2017. There were approximately 1,600 bruins more than a year old in LP BMUs during 2012 compared to an estimated 2,957 by September 1, 2017. Bear numbers have almost doubled in that part of the state over a 5-year period.
The DNR sets a bear harvest goal by BMU to help them determine how many bear licenses to issue for each. That goal is simply a guideline to help control hunting pressure. A number of variables other than bear numbers can influence the harvest, as mentioned above. Whether or not the harvest goal is achieved has no bearing on how many bears are present in the state, as DNR bear specialist Kevin Swanson explained at a Bear Forum held in St. Ignace on December 14.
“A word about desired harvest here,” he said near the beginning of the meeting. “It could be referred to as a goal harvest and exceeding that goal is a good thing as long as the abundance estimate and indicators continue to be positive and supportive of that harvest.”
The bear harvest goal for 2018 was 1,555. This is the first time in a number of years that the number of bears registered has been lower than the predetermined goal. The same harvest goal was in effect for 2017 and it was exceeded by 357. In 2016, the harvest goal of 1,362 was exceeded by 253.
That doesn’t mean too many bears were taken by hunters during 2016 and 2017. It means that hunters were more successful than expected due to a growing bear population and lower natural food supplies in parts of the state. In other words, even though the harvest goal was exceeded, more bears were added to the population through reproduction and recruitment than the number removed through hunting, allowing the population to continue increasing.
Whenever natural foods are abundant, the vulnerability of bears to hunters is reduced because the animals prefer fruits, nuts, berries and grains (corn and oats) that don’t have human scent associated with them versus some of the same foods placed at bait sites by hunters. There were plenty of blueberries, raspberries, wild cherries, feral apples and acorns available for bears to choose from during 2018 and there’s always a selection of corn and oat fields in agricultural areas. So bears visit hunters’ baits less frequently when there’s a bumper crop of natural foods than they otherwise would. And when they do visit baits, it’s more often under the cover of darkness instead of during legal hunting hours.
Since most hound hunters rely on baits to locate bears to chase, reduced reliance on baits by bears reduces the success rate of both bait and hound hunters. Dog hunters who rely on finding the tracks of bears where they cross trails also end up with lower success rates because bears don’t travel as much looking for food when what they want is easy to find. Bruins simply don’t cross as many roads under those circumstances.
There’s also usually a reduction in bear nuisance complaints associated with a good food year for bears. This correlation was obvious in the UP over the last two years. More than 200 nuisance bear complaints were recorded in the UP during 2017 compared to about 100 for 2018.
Due to the presence of almost twice as many bears in the LP, nuisance complaints remained high there in spite of abundant natural foods.
“The northern Lower Peninsula had to implement an on-call system to deal with nuisance bears in 2016 because bear complaints have become almost unmanageable,” DNR bear specialist Kevin Swanson commented during the Bear Forum in St. Ignace. “A dozen commercial beekeepers called this week to express concern over bear numbers in the Lower Peninsula.”
Approximately 200 nuisance bear reports were recorded in the LP during 2016. They dropped slightly to about 175 in 2017, but were back up around the 200 mark again for 2018.
Another factor that plays a role in reducing the bear harvest in the LP even when bears are abundant besides abundant natural foods and weather is the short season. Bear season was only open for nine days in most LP BMUs. Some of those days are reserved for bait hunting and others for hound hunting. UP bear seasons allow hunters to hunt a month or more, if they choose.
Weather can really impact success during short seasons if heat, heavy rains and/or strong winds affect one or more days of the hunt. When it’s hot, bears tend to be less active during daylight hours. The same is true during high winds and downpours. Many hunters don’t like to hunt under these conditions either.
Extended periods of poor weather for bear hunting can also reduce success in the UP. Temperatures were hot during the first five days of the UP bear season last fall, for instance, which probably influenced the number of bears killed that week.