The Bear Situation

The Sturgeon Moon is building toward its Saturday climax in the deep midnight sky, with the smell of cow corn and bear season in the air. For the first time in recent memory this year, bear season will be extended 12 days by adding a third segment, that being a slugs-only hunting opportunity coinciding with shotgun deer season.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens. The first 17-day September bear season opens on Sept. 8 — as usual, the day after Labor Day. MassWildlife has for years been trying to encourage more hunters to participate in the bear hunt, which typically draws a thin, select fraternity. Yet last year, with the burgeoning bear population running wild and spilling east into suburbia, where it creates vexing management problems, hunters shattered the harvest record with 240 kills, the lion’s share taken in September and the rest during the 18-day November season, which never approaches the September numbers. Why? Because bears are easier to pattern in September, especially problem bears ravaging cornfields and orchards, where hunters can easily get permission to hunt and set up in an advantageous stand.

Plus, this year there appears to be food in the woods, another option for those who prefer that setting. Although I have not visited my favorite upland hardwood spines, royal as they are, I did extend my Wednesday walk to assess the bottomland hard-mast crop, including a couple of tall, broad red oaks near two large shagbark hickories, and would say there are more acorns this year than last and about the same number of hickory nuts. The acorns are just sprouting on the small oaks and still for the most part clinging tightly to branch-tips of mature trees, with a few nuts on the ground here and there, what I would call wind and rainstorm drops. I bit into a capless red-oak acorn along a cornfield and found it chock-full of moist, bitter white meat.

Meanwhile, my daily travels long ago told me it’s a great year for apples and a good year for berries, judging from those I can easily monitor without going out of my wayg. So, although most bears will likely be taken near easily accessible cornfields and orchards now that hounds and bait are illegal, fruit and nuts are available and hunters posted in dense hickory, beech and oak groves or around wild fruit and berries could find success. The butternut trees I pass daily are showing few if any nuts for some reason, after last year producing many. Hmmmm? No clue. Ask Mother Nature.

Buoyed by last year’s record kill of 240 — which topped the 2012 record of 185 — and hoping to create an upward harvest trend to meet their goal of hunters reducing the statewide bear population by at least 12 percent annually, the management team opened the shotgun deer season to bear hunting. That move has been clamored for over the years by hunters claiming killable bears were not an unusual sight from deer stands and thus they should be allowed to take them to help meet management objectives.

The best reason for adopting the new policy is related to hunter density, which is typically sparse during the September and November bear seasons. On the other hand, never are there more hunters patrolling bear country than during deer season. The only other high-density hunt that compares is the spring turkey season, when hunters’ ammo is bird shot, definitely not a bear-hunting load. As for buckshot during deer season, well, yes, it could kill bears shot through the right weapon within 50 yards. But not everyone owns such a weapon and state officials clearly don’t want to tempt the fates of irresponsible long shots with buckshot that would result in wounding bears that either suffer and survive or die without being retrieved.

The inaugural bear season during deer season should prove interesting if for no other reason than the novelty of it. Bears were in play during deer season early in my lifetime, definitely as recent as the 1950s. Perhaps this new measure will assure an annual harvest of at least 200 bears, which would be a step in the right direction. But that remains to be seen, and we’ll need more than one season to quantify the impact. More likely, the annual bear kill will exceed what it would be without open season for deer hunters, but still won’t reach the goal of 12 percent annually to stabilize our bear population. Factors such as snow-cover, weather and available wild foods will contribute to some deer seasons being better than others for bear hunting.

The dates of this year’s three bear seasons are: Sept. 8 through 26, Nov. 2 through 21, and Nov. 30 through Dec. 12.

***

An interesting little gift found its way to my daily path over the weekend when — for some undetermined reason I won’t waste time trying to decipher — the end of a three-armed beech branch snapped off and fell to the ground with the outer tips propped up against a tall, dense wild-rosebush border.

I looked up to see where it had broken off, then went to the branch to see if there was meat in the many visible nuts encased in small, thorny, olive husks. Experience tells me that by the time the nuts collect on the ground most are hollow and meatless, which was not the case on this fallen branch. I must have opened a dozen husks, broken open the thin, soft, three-sided shells inside and found every last one of them full of dense, cream-colored meat.

Frankly, the discovery surprised me, because I have been opening beechnuts for many years at diverse sites and typically find hollow nut shells, whether pried out of the husk or lying loose on the ground. So, yes, meat has been a rarity in my half-century experimentation project. Not so this time, which leads me to believe that the meat disappears over time.

I can’t say what broke that perfectly healthy 3-inch branch to the ground, but if it was squirrels, there must have been many eating simultaneously to stress the branch so. Then again, perhaps a turkey brood was perched up there eating and one too many decided to join the feast.

It’s a mystery. A bear wouldn’t have tempted fate out so far on a flimsy branch. No chance. They’re not stupid. Plus, even a cub would have known better than to venture out close to the point of the break. So, yeah, my guess is probably turkeys, though I must admit I’ve seen a grand total of one since spring down there on my daily rambles.

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