New Jersey’s on-again, off-again bear hunt was launched for the first time in 30 years in 2003. In 2006, the bear season was arbitrarily ended by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP); however, in March of this year, the Fish and Game Commission approved a black bear management plan including a six-day season this December. At press time the plan was set to open to public comment prior to a final decision by the DEP.
Elsewhere, with consistent bear seasons and public-land opportunities, Maine, New York and Pennsylvania are genuine bruin hotspots.
Top Pick: Pennsylvania recorded its second-highest bear take in state history in 2009 (a whopping 3,512). The largest tipped the scales with an estimated live weight of 668 pounds. It was taken by Edward Bechtel of Lykens, one of 13 lucky hunters to kill bears weighing 600 pounds or more.
“We have a lot of public lands in some of the highest harvest areas in WMU 2G,” said Jerry Feaser of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Maine is notable for its decades-old outfitter tradition, contributing to nonresidents killing 1,865 of the 2,719 bears taken in 2008. “It’s a big state with a lot of remote timbered areas that are good bear habitat,” said frequent Maine hunter and American Hunter Field Editor Bryce Towsley.
Top Pick: North Carolina’s all-time top 10 bears range from 678 pounds to an 880-pound monster taken in 1998 using dogs. The No. 2 bear, a 752-pounder, was killed in 2007. Each bear, along with nine of the top 10, came from North Carolina’s fertile coastal region. In 2008, North Carolina hunters tagged 2,162 bears.
The majority of Virginia’s bear populations reside in the stoic Blue Ridge Mountains down into the lush Shenandoah Valley. With Interstate 81 bisecting the area, prime bear habitat is easy to reach, and public land opportunities abound. With an over-the-counter tag, hunters can comb through the vast Jefferson National Forest that runs through the area. Hunters bagged a state-record 2,304 bears last season.
Across most of North America, bear populations are on the rise; however, there are still areas of concern, most notably the Gulf Coast sub-species of Florida and Louisiana. As such, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida all currently prohibit bear hunting.
Top Pick: Since 1977, Tennessee’s annual bear harvests have increased annually by an average of 21 percent. But with nearly a half million acres of bear sanctuary, the Volunteer State just keeps cranking out quality bruins. Last year, a state-record-breaking 571 bears were tagged in Tennessee.
With the first bear season in more than a century, Kentucky hunters were champing at the bit for the two-day quota hunt. Then mother nature intervened with snow and ice. In two days, no bears were killed.
Can’t afford a Canada bear hunt? Collectively, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin are home to potentially 75,000-plus bears, providing spectacular northern-woods hunting.
Top Pick: Michigan hunters tagged 2,181 bears in 2007, which was a decrease, historically. But Michigan’s woods have extreme big-bear potential. The Boone and Crockett Club’s top bear of 2009, with a 2212/16-inch titan skull, was taken in Michigan.
Wisconsin hunters tagged 2,955 bears in 2008. Even more impressively, three of B&C’s top 10 bears from 2009 were killed there.
With an estimated population of 5,500 bears, New Mexico has more bruins than any other state in the Southwest; hunters there tagged 366 bears last year. But the No. 3 bear on B&C’S top 10 of 2009 is a bear with a 226/16-inch skull taken in Arizona.
With color-phase potential and the opportunity to spot-and-stalk the open terrain, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Colorado and Utah remain perennial favorites for bear hunters.
Top Pick: Utah has an estimated population of 3,000-3,500; hunters killed 134 bears in 2008; however, the largest bear on record is a 2310/16-inch behemoth skull picked up in Utah in 1975.
The West Coast is loaded, as California, Oregon and Washington’s collective estimates now approach 100,000 bears. In 1996, hunting with hounds or bait was abolished in Washington, and some unit bag limits increased as a result. In 2008, about 2,200 bears were tagged there. In the same year, Oregon hunters tagged 864 bears, while California met its quota of 1,700.
With an estimated population of 100,000, Alaska has more black bears than any other state, rivaling the great provinces of Canada. In 2007, about 3,250 bears were tagged in Alaska.
One of the rare sub-species of black bears that can still be legally hunted also resides in Alaska. The glacier bear, with its remarkable bluish pelt, can be found in the Yakutat area of southeast Alaska.
When it comes to monster black bears—jaw-popping, saliva-dripping, Shaq-size bears—Canada is king. Whether it be spot-and-stalk in northern British Columbia, still-hunting the tangles of Vancouver Island or sitting over bait in Alberta, there are simply more opportunities to take massive black bears across this enormous swath than anywhere else in North America.
Arguably one of the more interesting black bear scenarios in North America is taking shape in Mexico. As Mexican society shifts from rural to suburban, vast areas are opening up as bear habitat, contributing to what experts believe are increasing numbers. But due to little-to-no funding, and having few trained bear biologists in Mexico, data is difficult to capture.
“We rely on rancher reports,” said Dr. Diana Doan-Crider, coordinator of the Mexican Black Bear Project at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville.
Yet, despite not having the resources some U.S. agencies enjoy, bear populations seem to be on the rise and spreading into areas once void of bruins.