Opening Salvo

Could conditions have been any more favorable for hunters allowed for the first time in more than a half-century to kill bears during the 12-day shotgun deer season?

Well, not likely, with weather bordering on surreal and the woods literally full of a wide variety of wild foods. In fact, many hunters who were in the woods to experience the first go-round last month may never in their lifetimes see a better scenario unfold. Then again, who knows? With the planet said to be warming at an alarming rate, Decembers and Christmases similar to those we just witnessed may indeed become more the rule than the exception. But let’s not go there. It’s become a political hot potato that can get hotter by the second, and pretty ugly.

According to MassWildlife Bear Project Leader Laura Conlee, the preliminary bear harvest during deer season was a respectable 53, including that humongous 498-pound bruin shot in Quabbin country by an Athol hunter and first suspected to be a state record. However, further checking by MassWildlife Information and Education guru Marion Larson revealed that a bigger bruin had indeed been taken, and not that long ago, either. The record beast weighing a whopping 541 pounds was killed just three years ago in Southwick. Bagged during the 2012 September season, that 15-year-old bear stands as the state record since records have been kept. Both massive bears were males that were weighed field-dressed. Estimates suggest both animals would have tipped the scales at between 600 and 700 pounds live weight — nothing a man would want to pester during weekend woodland travel.

How warm was it during the first shotgun deer season allowing bear hunting in recent memory? Well, try this on for size. There were reports of nightcrawler picking past Christmas, and open-water Barton Cove anglers were casting lures from bass boats in shirtsleeves on New Years Day. The reason the unseasonably mild, snowless deer season offered ideal late bear-hunting opportunity was that the warmth, coupled with an overabundance of nuts, fruits and berries, kept foraging bears active longer than cold, snowy years. Had there been deep snow, frigid temps and sparse mast crops, much of the food would have been gone early and many bears would have been denned up in their dormant winter hibernation stage when, contrary to prevailing wisdom, they are rarely totally out of commission but are for sure less active and available to hunters.

Although Conlee agrees with the assessment that conditions for bear hunting during the most-recent deer season were optimal, she is certain some bears will always be available during shotgun deer seasons. Thus she’s confident that hunters will continue to produce a consistent supplement to the bear harvest regardless of conditions. In the process, hunters will furnish a needed alternative method of keeping the annual bear harvest on the upswing and maybe even meet the goal of stabilizing the statewide population before it gets out of hand. Fact is that suburban bears are already causing issues east of here, and the problems will spill out to the hinterlands and multiply if the population keeps growing unchecked. The previous split, six-week bear seasons simply weren’t meeting harvest goals.

Bears most vulnerable to deer hunters over the long haul will, according to Conlee, be solitary wandering males, barren sows and mother sows with growing yearling cubs. Bears that fit that mould hold out as long as they can in search of food to build fat reserves for lean winter dormancy. Even during difficult winters, some bears will come out of their dens on mild days to search for food. Although Conlee said the preferred late-fall feed is high-protein acorns and beechnuts, they will also seek out apples, black cherries, berries, and large, hard nuts like butternuts, hickories and walnuts, which are more than deer can handle. She said bears have no problem crunching up the bigger, harder nuts, and actually seek out hickory and walnut or butternut groves with good yields.

Something interesting in the wake of our first simultaneous shotgun deer/bear season in many years is that the 2015 bear harvest will actually be less than that of 2014, when bears were not fair game to shotgun deer hunters and mast crops were spotty at best, not nearly as bountiful as this year. The incomplete 2015 harvest shows 175 bears killed during September and November, plus a preliminary 53 during deer season for a total of 228. That’s 12 fewer than the September/November 2014 record total 240. Hmmmm? So how did that occur?

One factor that could lead to higher numbers during mediocre mast years like 2014 could be that bears have fewer places to feed and are thus easier to pattern and predict. Such places would include silage cornfields and commercial orchards, both of which provide easy access and open sight lines for rifles. However, even though cultivated foods were a factor in that 2014 harvest, the numbers don’t bear out a majority of cornfield kills. In fact, Conlee reported that only 14 percent of the 2014 harvest came from cultivated food sources, compared to 68 percent from wild foods, 14 percent from swamps and 17 percent from softwoods. Apparently, a majority of the successful hunters had — as a result of diligent scouting, evaluation and intuitive planning — discovered productive wild-food pockets during a spotty year and their scouting paid dividends.

Conlee said bears can grow accustomed to eating corn and become pests by developing a preference for it, but she doesn’t believe that is typical behavior or even that it’s as common as prevailing wisdom would suggest. To the contrary, she said bears prefer variety and take whatever’s available in a given year, and may just focus on productive nut groves even when corn and orchard fruits are ripe, rampant and easy picking. Which doesn’t preclude orchard and cornfield damage during bountiful natural-feed years like 2015, when bears will still switch it up from time to time and take a little of everything in their travels. Still, if natural feed is abundant, with exceptions, Conlee thinks most bears will seek it out and not focus primarily on cornfields and commercial orchards. Plus, she said, wise old bears that have been pressured by farmers an/or hunters over the years quickly adapt and learn to feed on cornfields at night after legal hunting hours.

So now, following our first combined deer/bear season in generations, questions remain and will surely linger for many years to come. Eventually, though, we’ll know precisely what the new twist means in the big picture. Think of it: How could this season extension into deer season not aid the initiative to harvest more bears in an effort aimed at population control and reduction of potential human conflict?

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