NYSDEC’s Black Bear Management Plan

NYSDEC’s recently proposed Black Bear Management Plan covers a wide range of issues. It is important to note that this is a “draft” plan, and is subject to change depending on public input.

Biologists began investigating a number of Catskill black bear issues in the 1970’s when overall bear numbers were considerably lower. A “mark and recapture” program was implemented by DEC in the early 1970’s to tag bears in the Catskills in hopes of determining a population estimate for the area. A good number of bears were tagged and marked each year. Based upon the ratio of tagged bears in the annual bear harvest, it was possible to extrapolate a preseason bear population level. Keep in mind that bear abundance and distribution were considerably less during that era. The first population estimates at that time revealed a preseason Catskill bear population at about 230 bears. Hunters, hikers, landowners and outdoor enthusiasts were surveyed to determine their interest and opinions about the Catskill bear population. The results of the surveys were that people clearly wanted to see more and hunt more black bears.

Accordingly, the Department implemented a number of substantial measures to increase the number of bears and allow the expansion of bear populations. The Catskill region was completely closed to bear hunting during the1976 and 1977 seasons. Female black bears typically breed every other year and the closing the season for two years was intended to allow all of the adult females the opportunity to be bred (they breed every other year) .

In 1978 the bear season was reopened and bear hunting was allowed only during the first seven days of the regular big game season. That specific time frame is also when annual deer hunting pressure is highest. Many more bears were taken than desired during the limited seven day bear season. Since the 1978 bear harvest was much greater than anticipated, additional modifications were made in the 1979 season to better restrict bear harvest. Bear hunting was allowed only during the last 11 days of the regular big game season. Data from radio collars showed that pregnant sows, and sows with cubs usually enter their winter dens well before the adult males do so. The delayed start of the bear season was intended to protect female bears while allowing continued harvest of the boars. Male black bears are promiscuous and can breed multiple females, so the heavier harvests of male bears did not have any impact on the number of breeding females and overall bear reproduction.

As a result of this late opening of the regular bear season, black bear numbers increased throughout the Catskill Region thru the 1980’s and 1990’s and into the next millennium. Increased bear abundance also allowed for bear expansion into new areas that previously did not have black bears.

The most recent preseason Catskill population estimate in the current Bear Management Plan is about 2800 bears. This increased number of bears is more than 10 times greater than the early 1970’s estimate of 230 bears in the Catskill region. As a result of the expanding bear population, the regular black bear season opening date was recently pushed back to coincide once again with the opening day of Southern Zone Big Game firearms season. Bear harvest numbers continue to greatly exceed the bear harvests of the 1970’s.

With a growing bear population also comes the concern for more human/bear problems. The typical bird feeder destruction, garbage raiding, crop destruction and apiary depredations are significantly higher in number and are worse in dry summers when natural vegetation is less abundant. More importantly, the recent phenomenon of “home-entry” bears has become more prevalent and this has the potential for costly and severe impacts for homeowners. Accordingly, the Catskill bear population should probably be reduced slightly in an effort to lessen the more severe bear damage incidents.

There are a number of proposed actions to increase bear harvest contained in the Draft Black Bear Management Plan. It should be noted that this document is not final and will not be officially adopted by DEC and the Department of State until after the public comment period ends on February 21, 2014.

Among the proposals in the Draft Bear Management Plan is an early Catskill season, similar to the current early season in the Northern Zone and a number of other states. Early seasons have had their share of problems with meat spoilage given the warmer temperatures as several have noted in this thread. The issue of orphaned cubs has also been raised, but typically young of the year cubs are weaned by early September and are not dependant on their sow for a steady diet of natural, solid foods. What they can miss out on however, is denning behavior that is learned by them when they enter the den with their sow. As important as denning behavior is to their survival, orphan cubs have been observed to den on their own, although some of their choices are not ideal.

The currently existing statute pertaining to the taking of cubs by hunters is not consistent throughout NYS. Cubs can legally be taken in the Northern Zone seasons and comprise a small percentage of the annual bear harvest. Field judging the size of live black bears can be very difficult because they can have a wide range of body sizes. The only way to determine the difference between cubs and older bears in the fall is to examine the canine teeth Cubs in the fall still have milk canine teeth, while yearlings and older bears have full sized adult canines. This overlap of body size makes it very difficult in many instances for hunters to determine if an individual bear is an adult or a cub. Body characteristics can be used to estimate a bear’s approximate age, but given the observed range of body sizes of young of the year bears and yearling bears, none of those other characteristics are absolute.

Fortunately NYSDEC still has retained the authority to establish annual bear hunting seasons and bag limits by regulation. They are not dependent upon the NYS Legislature to make law changes. In fact the regulatory process allows for statutes to be amended on a yearly basis if appropriate.

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