Bear Harvest Limited By Abundant Food

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This year's abundance of natural foods like hazelnuts and acorns led to one of the lowest bear harvests in the past decade, according to officials from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Minnesota bear hunters took 1,852 bears during the 2002 bear season, which ran from Sept. 1 through Oct. 13. This year's harvest is less than half of the number harvested in 2001, according to DNR wildlife officials. Bear harvests in Minnesota over the past 10 years have ranged from this year's low up to nearly 5,000, said to Dave Garshelis, DNR bear research biologist in Grand Rapids.

"Hazelnuts and acorns, the main fall foods for bears, were exceedingly abundant last fall, which meant bears were less attracted to hunters' baits," Garshelis said. "In 2001, natural foods were scarce and hunters had higher success because bears were more easily attracted to bait."

Of those who hunted bears in 2002, 13 percent were successful, compared with 29 percent in 2001.

"The 2001 and 2002 harvests were remarkably similar to the pattern of harvest in 1995 and 1996 when a very poor year for hard mast was followed by abundant hazelnuts and acorns the next fall," Garshelis said. "While natural food availability appears to be the driving force in determining bear harvest, other factors that may have contributed to the decline included fewer active hunters, a later opener, and a lower season bag limit than in 2001."

By stabilizing the state's bear population through hunting, the DNR hopes to avoid large numbers of bear-human conflicts that tend to occur when natural foods are scarce, said Lou Cornicelli, big game specialist in the DNR Division of Wildlife. Because of this year's low harvest, collection of samples from hunters for the range-wide survey of bear populations in Minnesota will be repeated in 2003. The survey is used to refine and calibrate annual bear population estimates.

In the survey, baits containing tetracycline, a common antibiotic that can be detected in bone samples, were hung in the woods for bears to eat during the summer. Hunters who killed a bear submitted bone samples to the DNR. The proportion of bones showing a tetracycline mark in the fall is used to estimate the bear population. Previous estimates indicate that the current bear population is between 20,000 and 30,000.

"Unfortunately, this year's low harvest will reduce the precision of our new population estimate," Garshelis said. "We will, however, do another sample collection in 2003. Barring another difficult year for hunters, we should get a more precise estimate."

Analysis for the 2002 bear population estimate will be complete in February.

Additional details and application instructions for 2003 bear hunting quota area licenses will be available by April 1. The application deadline will be Friday, May 3. The season will open Monday, Sept. 1.