2013 N.H. Bear Hunt Outlook

Black bear - by Duane Cross

By Andrew Timmins, N.H. Fish and Game Bear Project Leader
Posted August 22, 2013

The 2013 bear hunting season, which begins September 1, should be exciting for New Hampshire bear hunters.  The population is strong throughout the state, with an estimated total population of 5,100 animals.

Bear densities are relatively consistent with population management objectives in all of the state’s six bear management regions.  Bear densities are highest in the northernmost three management regions, but the southern part of the state also offers good bear hunting opportunity. 

Hunters have the ability to hunt bear using three different methods, including stalking, baiting and hounding over the course of the season.  Season lengths and dates vary by region and method.  Hunters must refer to the 2013-2014 NH Hunting and Trapping Digest at huntnh.com for specific season dates.

More Food in the Woods
The 2013 bear hunting season is expected to be different in several ways from last year’s bear season.  Specifically, all indications to date suggest that there will be a lot more food in the woods compared to last fall.  Bear hunter success rates are strongly dictated by the abundance and distribution of natural foods.  Regardless of which method of bear hunting is used, overall harvest tallies and success rates tend to fluctuate, often dramatically, from one year to the next as a result of variation in mast crop production.  Hunters achieved a record bear harvest last fall (808 bears) in New Hampshire.  This was caused by low food abundance and high hunter success.  While the overall harvest this year will likely be lower compared to that of last fall, hunters who decipher which foods bears are focused on will have exciting hunting opportunities.
At the time of this writing, it appears that there will be a multitude of bear foods in the woods this fall.  Blackberry and cherry crops look promising in most areas.  It is looking like a banner year for mountain ash.  Apples appear somewhat spotty, but locally abundant.  We were very concerned about how the apple crop would fare due to extended rain and several nights of frost in late May and early June.  When apple blossoms were in full bloom, some areas in the northern part of the state had several nights of hard frost as temperatures dipped into the low 20’s.  In addition to the frost, the weather forecast generally called for rain from late May through mid-July.  Despite these conditions, apple crops have appeared to have done fairly well in many areas and will provide important fall bear food.

In terms of hard mast, it appears that both beech and oak will produce a crop this year.  It is too early to tell how abundant this crop will be, but trees of both species have been observed with viable nuts.  Beech is always challenging to predict.  It is a highly variable crop from year to year.  Additionally, beech grows nut hulls in many years, but that is no indication that the hulls will actually have a viable nut or “meat.”  Mast surveys conducted by Fish and Game biologists and cooperating foresters during August and September will provide the best assessment of fall mast conditions.

Given the variety of species that bears will feed on, it is helpful to mention the most prominent foods that bears will target (based on availability) between September and November.  During early September, bears focus their feeding activity on blackberries, chokecherries, apples and black cherries.  Bears tend to focus on fruits and berries during early fall and nuts during mid and late fall; however usage is strongly dictated by abundance.  If beechnut and acorn crops are abundant, bears will start feeding on these nuts in mid September and continue into late November or early December.  Bears often feed on mountain ash later in fall, often after the berries have been hit by cold frost.  Cornfields are also worth checking for bear activity.  However, corn usage by bears decreases when food is abundant in the woods.

Scouting Is Key
Scouting, particularly during food abundant years, is often the key to success in bear hunting. When food is abundant, bears tend not to travel as far to find food.  The hunter must find the specific ridge or berry patch that bears are hitting.  It is not difficult to detect bear usage of a particular area or food source.  Look for tracks and scat.  Examine the scat carefully, as remnants of what they have been eating will be in the scat.  When bears are working berry patches, trails in the vegetation and busted branches will be evident.  When looking for feeding activity in beech or oak stands, look for scats containing nut fragments, recent claw marks on trees (very evident on beech, less so on oak), broken branches under the canopy of the tree and bear “nests” in the crown.  When checking acorn and beech crops, bring binoculars to canvas the crown of the tree and break open fallen nuts to determine if they contain viable “meat.” 

Proper Game Care Essential!
Daytime temperatures often remain very warm during September and October, and proper care is necessary to avoid spoiling of meat during this early season, so hunters need to plan accordingly when attempting to take a bear.  To help prevent the spoiling of meat, Fish and Game rule (Fis 301.06,(p)) allows the hunter to skin the animal (and get the meat into a cool area) immediately after taking.  At the time of mandatory bear registration, a hunter must exhibit the hide, legs and feet, intact skull and sex organs to a Conservation Officer for tagging.

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