Hunting > Big Game

The Great Black Bear Comeback

With populations reaching levels not seen in decades, the American black bear is making a monster comeback.


With numbers currently distributed over most of its historic range across Canada, and populations increasing throughout much of the continental United States, Mexico and Alaska, the American black bear has made a remarkable comeback. The population spike has led to more bear-human contact, and in some cases that interaction has led to bear attacks, with a number ending tragically in human fatalities. Today, a population once considered in serious trouble faces a new era as wildlife managers shift the focus from recovery to one more concerned with management and, where needed, control.

Population growth and a shift of management goals, especially in the continental United States, is dramatically effecting the prism in which both wildlife managers and local communities view black bear hunting seasons. Bear hunters might just be entering a golden era.

Wildlife population numbers are often hard data to generate, as difficult to quantify as to qualify. However, a recent report authored by Hank Hristienko, black bear programs manager with Manitoba Conservation, and John E. McDonald, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, entitled “Going into the 21st Century: A Perspective on Trends and Controversies in the Management of the American Black Bear,” published in Ursus, the official journal of the International Association for Bear Research and Management, in 2007, represents the most recent and complete look at black bear numbers. The report analyzes information collected from 52 individual jurisdictions across North America. It compares numbers from the late 1980s to the beginning of the 21st century, including population estimates, harvest data, hunting methods and trends in human-bear conflicts. The results clearly show that black bear populations, as a whole, are growing.

“The total estimate [of black bears in North America] for the start of the 21st century was between 750,235 and 917,650, with a midpoint of 833,943,” Hristienko said via e-mail. “That number would be higher today.”

Once looked on more as vermin than game, black bear “management” has included policies ranging from uncontrolled seasons to bounties on animals, historically. Also, loss of habitat, fragmentation from sprawling roads and rail and electrical lines, and increased mortality from game and market hunting threatened a species that once inhabited nearly all of North America’s forested lands. But in the mid-20th century, wildlife managers intervened, and conservative hunting seasons and moratoriums were placed on black bears where appropriate.

“Estimated black bear populations in the United States grew by 13 percent from 1970 to the late-1980s and were considered stable …,” wrote the authors in the report. “Many factors likely contributed to the recovery and increase, including removal of bounties, reduced killing as ‘vermin,’ implementation of conservative hunting seasons and regulations (particularly the protection of females and cubs), hunting and firearm restrictions around communities, reduced hunter access to private land, and designation as threatened or endangered where applicable. In conjunction with reduced mortality, suitable habitat expanded through the natural succession of abandoned and converted farmland, logged and burned areas, and through increased availability of human-sourced foods such as garbage, birdfeed, and crops. Now that black bear populations have been restored over most of their range, the focus of management is shifting from increasing populations and providing recreational hunting opportunities to resolving issues brought about by abundance.”

As a whole, populations have consistently increased throughout North America, according to the report. In Canada, populations in four of 11 jurisdictions increased, while the other seven remained stable. However, in the continental United States, the numbers show much more explosive growth. “Of 33 U.S. states that reported resident black bear populations in both 1988 and 2001, 28 reported an increase in estimated abundance during that period,” wrote Hristienko and McDonald.

This increased abundance, of course, has ramifications of its own, including increased bear sightings, property damage and, ultimately, attacks on humans. In 2006, for example, in Cherokee National Forest a black bear killed 6-year-old Elora Petrasek after first mauling the girl’s 2-year-old brother and mother. One of several in a seemingly sudden increase in bear attacks, experts later concluded this was a case of a predatory, unprovoked attack.

“Concurrent with the expansion in numbers and distribution of bears and people, human-bear conflicts have increased, as evidenced by governments drafting policies and legislation to deal with problem bears, more scientific studies on the subject, and increased coverage in the popular media,” wrote Hristienko and McDonald. “Many of these issues (crop damage, vehicle collisions, and residential property damage) are similar to other human-wildlife conflicts; however, unlike most other wildlife species that conflict with people (with the exception of large cats), black bears can be a threat to personal safety. These concerns have been fueled by media reports of bear-human encounters involving human injury, including 12 fatalities since 2000. These deaths account for 21 percent of all recorded black bear-related fatalities since 1900.”

The response in several states has been to reinstitute bear hunts, policies that have been met with fierce resistance in some communities but welcomed in others. In 2003, New Jersey conducted its first bear season in more than 30 years. Despite uproar from critics, bear complaints decreased the following year by 42 percent. Officials caved to pressure the following year; however, with Gov. Chris Christie in place, a New Jersey bear hunt could resume soon. In 2004, Maryland opened its first bear season in 51 years, a quota hunt that saw 20 bears checked on the opening day. In 2009, Oklahoma also conducted a quota hunt for 20 bears; meanwhile, Kentucky remarkably held its first bear hunt in more than a century. “Sportsmen and sportswomen of Kentucky should be very excited,” said Steven Dobey, black bear biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “Bears are now well established in eastern Kentucky and research shows that population growth has risen steadily over the last 20 years.”

Importantly for sportsmen, according to the Ursus report, data show that the most effective plans for consistently controlling black bear populations include hunting seasons. Interestingly, the more liberal the hunting seasons, the more effective the management plan, as jurisdictions that allow spring hunting, baiting and/or hunting with dogs consistently realize less bear recruitment than jurisdictions that allow only fall hunting—important data for communities desperately seeking to slow booming bear populations that are leading to more bear-human contact.

“In 17 jurisdictions that had spring hunts, estimated black bear populations increased 6 percent, compared to a 51 percent increase in the 21 jurisdictions with fall-only seasons,” wrote Hristienko and McDonald in their report. “Estimated populations increased by 87 percent in the 14 jurisdictions without hunting seasons. Another 10 jurisdictions had reports of occasional transient bears but no resident population. Jurisdictions with liberal hunting regimes tended to maintain human-bear conflict at stable levels, whereas those with more restrictive regimes appeared to experience a growing trend.”

While more jurisdictions seem to be opening bear seasons each year, especially in the United States, anti-hunting groups nevertheless still actively campaign for more restrictions. While New Jersey is the most publicized recent political battle over bear hunting, it is not alone. In 1999, Ontario infamously closed all spring bear seasons, citing fear over cub fatality/orphan rates; however, most experts believe the provincial government bowed to well-heeled anti-hunting groups. More recently, as Oklahoma prepared for its first bear hunt, the Associated Press reported conflicting information from an anti-hunting group based in, oddly enough, Oregon.

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