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Bear Hunt Forecast

By Andrew Timmins, NH Fish and Game Bear Project Leader

Posted August 23, 2018

 

Black Bear

As the September 1 opener of the 2018 bear season approaches, all indications suggests that is will be a very good bear season in the Granite State.  With a current bear population estimated at 5,800 animals, bears are abundant and at or above the desired population goal in most areas of the state.  As a result, hunting seasons were recently further liberalized in several regions thereby creating increased hunting opportunity.  For the 2018 season, two additional weeks of hunting opportunity was added to the White Mountains, Central, Southwest-2 and Southeast regions.  While bear densities remain highest in the northernmost three management regions, there are ample numbers of bears in the more southern regions to result in exciting opportunities and good hunter success.  Hunters don’t need to travel to the northern part of the state to harvest a bear; opportunities exist in all regions.  Hunters have the ability to hunt bear using three different methods including stalking, baiting and hounding over the course of the season.  Season lengths and dates vary by region and method.  Hunters must refer to the 2018-2019 NH Hunting and Trapping Digest for specific season dates.  Hunters are also asked to refrain from knowingly taking sows with dependent cubs.  Due to abundant food crops last fall, many adult sows gave birth to cubs in January/February and will have these cubs with them this fall.  A selective and conservative hunter can dramatically reduce the chances of taking these sows accompanied by cubs.

 

At the time of this writing, Department biologists have been busy assessing mast production across the state.  To date, summer and fall mast crops have been very spotty and somewhat below average.  Blueberries, which represent the first widely distributed berry crop of the summer, produced average crops in most areas.  This was followed by a reasonably abundant raspberry crop during late July and early August.  At the time of this writing, the August blackberry crop has been disappointing in many areas.  While some berries are present, a strong crop was anticipated based on how well this species blossomed last spring.  Additionally, chokecherry is an important late summer food crop for bears and fruit production for this species has also been below average.  The decreased abundance of summer foods has resulted in a notable increase in reported bear-human conflicts during 2018.  This is followed by a low complaint year in 2017 when summer and fall mast crops produced abundant crops.

 

As we transition to fall, acorn and apple crops will require close watching to determine the full extent of production.  While white oak is not a widely distributed species in New Hampshire, it is locally important to both bears and the hunter.  It is looking like there will be some white oak acorns this year.  The full extent of acorn production by red oak is still yet to be determined.  The bulk of oak mast surveys occur in late August and early September.  Upon completion of those surveys we will have a better sense of production.  Certainly there will be some red oak acorns but production will likely be down compared to the recent past.  Apple crops also seem spotty with abundant crops on some trees and poor crops on others.   Other import fall bear foods including beech, mountain ash and black cherry are not expected to produce much of a crop this fall.  Many of these species are cyclical in their fruit production and this year represents an off year.

 

For the bear hunter, recommended food crops to focus on this fall include blackberries (particularly during the early part of the season), acorns (particularly white oak) and apples.  These crops will likely be spotty but may be reasonably abundant in select areas.  It is also worth checking cornfields for bear activity.  Due to the lack of beechnuts and decreased abundance of acorns, bear activity in corn fields is expected to be high this fall.

 

Given the varied nature of bear foods this fall, scouting remains an integral part of hunter success.  When bears locate abundant food, they tend not to travel as far to forage.  The hunter must find the specific ridge or berry patch that bears are frequenting.  It is not difficult to detect bear usage of a particular area or food source.  Look for tracks and scat.  Examine the scat as remnants of what they have been eating will be in the scat.  When bears are working berry patches, trails in the vegetation and busted branches will be evident.  When looking for feeding activity in oak or beech stands, look for scats containing nut fragments, recent claw marks on trees (very evident on beech, less so on oak), busted branches under the canopy of the tree and bear "nests" in the crown.  When checking acorn and beech crops, bring binoculars to canvas the crown of the tree and break open fallen nuts to determine if they contain viable "meat."

 

The 2018 bear hunting season should be very good based on the fact that bear populations are strong across the state.  Additionally, decreased food abundance will make bears more predictable resulting in increases hunter success.  Hunters who spend the time deciphering which foods bears are focused on will have great hunting opportunities and a good chance at a New Hampshire bruin.