2014 N.H. Bear Hunt Outlook
By Andrew Timmins, N.H. Fish and Game Bear Project Leader
Posted August 13, 2014
The 2014 bear hunting season, which begins September 1, is predicted to be a good one for New Hampshire bear hunters. With a current bear population estimated at 5,700 animals, bears are abundant, and at the desired population goal, in most areas of the state. 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. The bear hunting season has been extended in 4 of 6 bear management regions (i.e., White Mountains, Central, Southwest-2 and Southeast) offering additional hunting opportunity. Season lengths and dates vary by region and method. Hunters must refer to the 2014-2015 NH Hunting and Trapping Digest for specific season dates.
Bear hunter success is directly related to the abundance of natural bear foods during the fall hunting season. When food is limited, hunter’s success and the bear harvest increases as bears become more vulnerable to harvest. The opposite is true during abundant food years. During 2012, food was largely absent and bear hunters achieved a record harvest (812 bears). During 2013, food was abundant and the statewide bear harvest was average (570 bears). While it is challenging to predict how good the 2014 mast crop will be, early indications suggest that it will be another relatively good food year. Hunters who spend the time deciphering which foods bears are focused on will have exciting hunting opportunities and a good chance at a New Hampshire bruin.
Outlook for Mast
At the time of this writing, mast surveys to date indicate that there will be a multitude of bear foods in the woods this fall, but some will produce better than others. Blackberry and choke cherry crops look excellent in most areas. As of mid-August, bears are feeding heavily on choke cherries therefore that crop may be played out by early September. Blackberries have not yet ripened and should be a major bear food source in early to mid-September. Apples appear spotty and generally less abundant than recent years. Trees that had blossoms in May tend to have apples. However, the number of blossoms on trees was low and reflective of the current apple load.
In terms of hard mast, red oak acorns will be the dominant nut crop this fall. Recent observations indicate abundant acorns in most areas; however this crop can vary from one ridge to another. If you know of white oak stands in central and southern New Hampshire, they will be worth checking for bear activity as well. It is not expected that there will be a significant beechnut crop this year, given that this crop produced well last fall. This crop is typically sporadic and often only produces an abundant crop once every 4 to 5 years.
While blackberries and acorns will likely be the fall staple for bears, there are other species that are worth checking and keeping an eye on. At the beginning of the season, raspberries (which are currently producing a very good crop) may still be available. Black cherries are worth checking, however early indications do not show a strong crop. Hazelnuts may be available in early September however squirrels tend to beat the bears to them. It is also worth checking cornfields for bear activity. While bear activity in corn fluctuates depending on mast crops (corn usage by bears decreases when food is abundant in the woods) there tends to be some corn use by bears in most years. The bear activity in corn will likely be higher in the more northern part of the state where oak is less distributed and beechnut production is down.
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 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 oak or beech stands, look for scats containing nut fragments, recent claw marks on trees (very evident on beech, less so on oak), busted 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”.
Avoid Spoiling of Meat
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 & 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 Department staff for tagging.