Hunters registered a total of 1,905 black bears in the state during the 2023 seasons, according to preliminary figures from the DNR, which is down 68 animals from last year, but almost identical to the 1,907 bruins checked during 2021. State licensed hunters accounted for 1,844 of the total harvest this year and tribal members tagged 61.

Most of the bears that were bagged in 2023 came from the U.P. at 1,404, 37 of which were taken on tribal licenses. The total take from Lower Peninsula bear management units (BMUs) was 464, with 24 of those claimed under tribal tags.

The kill was good considering the state issued 415 fewer bear licenses during 2023 than the previous two years. A total of 7,001 bear tags were available each of the previous two years compared to 6,586 this year. Most of the reduction in licenses (365) was for the U.P. There were 165 fewer for the Newberry BMU, 130 were cut from the Bergland BMU, 65 for the Gwinn BMU and five from the Baraga BMU.

Rick Herman from Sutton’s Bay with his first black bear, taken in Keweenaw Co. on Sept. 25, 2023. The bear has a white V on its chest.

The DNR reduced bear licenses for the Red Oak BMU in the northern L.P. by 85 and cut 20 from the quota for the Gladwin BMU, but 55 more bear tags were available for the Baldwin BMU. So, the net loss of bear licenses for L.P. BMUs was only 50.

The reason bear harvests remain high in spite of reduced license numbers is the number of bears on the landscape is generally high in the U.P. However, the population may be leveling off in the northern L.P., according to DNR bear specialist Cody Norton.

“We are starting to see the bear population in the northern Lower stabilize,” he said. “Prior to this year, we ratcheted up the harvest in that part of the state in an effort to reduce the high level of nuisance complaints and that appears to be working.”

Norton said the most recent estimate of bear numbers for the area of the L.P. where bears are legal to hunt is 2,008 animals that are at least a year old. That estimate is for September 1, 2022. The estimate of the number of legal bears for that region on September 1, 2021 was 2,197 and 2,663 on September 1, 2020.

Those estimates are arrived at from all of the data about the sex and ages of harvested bears the DNR has obtained from many years of registration information. That information is entered into a computer model. As new data from each year’s harvest is entered into the model, population estimates are recalculated.

As of September 1, 2022, the number of bears that were at least a year old in the U.P. was 10,218, according to Norton. The computer model estimated there were 10,649 legal bears in the U.P. on September 1, 2021 and only 9,673 on September 1, 2020.

Reduced bear numbers in the L.P. are partly responsible for lower bear harvests than anticipated in the Baldwin and Red Oak BMUs during 2023, according to Norton. Only 129 bears were registered in Baldwin by state licensed hunters during 2023 compared to a desired harvest of 185, a difference of 56. Bear registrations for Red Oak totaled 283, 34 lower (11%) than the desired harvest of 317.

“If the registered harvest is 10 or 12% above or below the desired harvest, that’s nothing to worry about,” Norton said. “Registrations for that unit (Red Oak) were consistently above desired harvest levels for the last five or six years.”

There were 28 bears registered for the Gladwin BMU during 2023, which was two more than the desired harvest of 26.

Bear numbers are not the only factor that influences how many bruins hunters are able to shoot. The availability of natural foods is also important. Bears prefer natural foods such as acorns, beechnuts, wild cherries and apples over bait put out by hunters. The same is true for standing corn in agricultural areas. So when natural foods are abundant, bear hunting success tends to decline.

“There were a lot of areas with good acorn crops in the northern Lower Peninsula this year,” Norton commented. “The apple crop was pretty good, too.”

Apples were abundant in the U.P. this year and acorns were present in some areas.

Bear kills in the Newberry and Gwinn BMUs in the U.P. were 50% and 40%, respectively, above desired harvests. Hunters registered 391 bears for Newberry versus the desired harvest of 260, a difference of 131 animals. A total of 210 bears were registered in the Gwinn Unit, 60 more than the desired harvest of 150.

“We have been trying to increase the population in both of those units,” Norton said, “and those efforts appear to be working. Newberry now has one of the best success rates in the U.P.”

The number of bears registered for the other U.P. BMUs was much closer to the desired harvests. There were 133 bruins tallied for the Carney BMU, 17 more than the desired harvest of 116. The total for Bergland was 213 compared to a desired harvest of 200 and 170 for Amasa, five more than the desired harvest.

The Baraga BMU is the only U.P. unit in which the number of bears registered was below the desired harvest. There were 282 checked versus a desired harvest of 300, a difference of 18 or 6%.