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Wisconsin bear numbers booming

August 27, 2009 at 06:14 AM


MADISON, Wis. (AP) - In 1985, Wisconsin closed its black bear hunting season after animal rights organizations complained the state could be overharvesting the bear population.

The hunter bear harvest in 1984 was 1,097 animals. When the season reopened in 1986, a restriction on permits limited the kill to 503 bear.

When hunters take to the forest and woodlots this fall, they are expected to register nearly 5,000 bear, a figure almost 10 times the 1986 take and five times the harvest that led to the 1985 season closure, and no one is expressing concern about depleting the bear population.

“A combination of factors allowed the bear population to increase to its current level,” said Keith Warnke, Department of Natural Resources bear and deer expert.

The previous bear population was underestimated and implementation of harvest quotas prevented overharvest, he said. A recent University of Wisconsin study funded by the DNR found the bear population was nearly twice previous DNR estimates, with much of the increase occurring in central counties once considered marginal bear habitat.

“Despite an increasing human population and division of large parcels, Wisconsin’s landscape has become more ‘bear-friendly,’” Warnke said. “Lands once used for agricultural production are shifting to recreational uses, which provide better bear habitat. As suitable bear habitat increased, the ecological carrying capacity of bears in Wisconsin also increased.”

Hunter interest has increased along with the expanding bear population. When the permit system was first installed in 1986, only 8,285 people applied.

By 2004, there were 62,594 applicants for 4,741 bear harvest permits. A year ago, 85,982 applicants sought 4,660 permits.

This season, 95,483 hunters applied for 7,310 permits.

Bear hunters experienced a 63 percent success rate in 2008, but success rates have varied from 47 to 72 percent since 1991.

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Warnke said the DNR issued 7,310 permits this season with the goal of harvesting 4,585 bear.

“Based on the recent UW study, there are between 26,000 and 40,000 bears,” he said. “We are using the lower number in setting bear quotas for hunting. This is a standard conservative approach to managing a wildlife population.

“In other words, we are confident we have at least 26,000 bears, so we can safely set harvest levels based on that.”

The department has not established a new management goal for the state’s bear population.

Prior to the UW study, the agency was aiming for a pre-hunt bear population of 11,300.

“We are revisiting the bear management plan and reassessing what the bear goal for Wisconsin should be,” Warnke said.

“We will monitor the 2009 bear season and evaluate the impact of the 57 percent increase in harvest permits. We will assess factors such as success rates, level of effort and hunter conflict. Permit levels will cont inue to be set to move the bear population towards goal in a responsible manner.”

For the 2009 season, which opens Sept. 9, the increase in permits improved an applicant’s chances of obtaining a harvest permit from 13 to 23 percent and dropped at least a year off the number of annual preference points required to obtain a permit.

It took at least four years of preference to obtain a permit in Zone C this year, but seven to nine years in the rest of the state.

The opening week is rotated between hunters using dogs and hunters who use bait only. This year, hunters using dogs will begin the season Sept. 9. Bait hunters will join in Sept. 16. The season runs through Oct. 6 for houndsmen, and Oct. 13 for those using bait only.

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