MONTPELIER — You can never have too much bear, but you certainly can have too many, experts say.
Bears for everyone
Over the past two seasons, Vermont hungers have pulled in record numbers of black bears, clocking in 914 black bears during the two-part bear season.
This past hunting season, 823 bears were harvested early, and only 91 late. The total amounts to almost 200 more than in 2019, the highest bear harvest on record.
The average number of bears harvested annually over the previous decade is 608.
Forrest Hammond, wildlife biologist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, attributes the massive increase to cabin fever. With the social distancing requirements installed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the department sold 24% more hunting licenses this year than last year.
Bears, beeches and berry shortages
The buffet table is a little short for bears this year, Hammond said, with apples, berries and beech nuts in short supply, which means more four-legged omnivores are headed for the fields to bulk up for winter.
“Size means everything in bear society, including when bears bear young, how many they have (and) lactation,” Hammond said. “(And) weak cubs are picked off by predators.”
In order to to eat enough to hibernate for almost six months, Hammond said, bears can get extra corny, choosing to venture into crop fields for snacks and giving farmers a hard time.
Choose your weapon
Despite the large numbers of harvested bear this year, Hammond said the bear population remains between 3,500 and 5,500, a very healthy number.
Vermont allows for the taking of bears by firearm or “still hunting,” bow hunting and with the use of bear hounds, but Hammond said the practice of bear baiting remains illegal.
“The majority of the bears harvested in Maine and New Hampshire are baited,” Hammond said.
Use of hounds, which Hammond said remains a highly controversial practice, is allowed with the use of up to six dogs and specifically a bear-dog permit, according to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.
Whenever the department sees the bear population numbers fluctuate outside of the state comfort zone, the numbers are remedied simply by lengthening or shortening the season by several days to allow the levels to return to normal, but Hammond said that the bear population remains within the 2020-2030 Big Game Plan bear population objective.
Disease is never an issue between bears and humans, Hammond said, and the population of bears in the state is dependent upon just how many bears Vermonters can “tolerate.”
“We’ve got a large, healthy population of bears in the state,” Hammond said. “There’s no fear of eradicating them ... We have more of a concern of declining hunters.”
The number of hunters in the state is determined by the number of licenses sold, Hammond said, but there has been a country-wide trend of decline in sales despite the desirability of wild game meat like bear, known for its flavor and high nutrition value.
“Bear management is needed,” Hammond said. “(Otherwise) bears will become less wary of people, they’re learning to come into towns and access food more and more.”
Bear hunters must bring their bear into one of 150 game check stations and submit a pre-molar tooth from their bear, which provides information on the age of the animal, according to Vermont Fish and Wildlife.
Bear season 2021 is currently scheduled to run from Sept. 1 to Nov. 21, with non-resident black bear hunter season with use of hounds beginning on Sept. 15, according to state officials.