Jane Vachon: (603) 271-3211
Andrew Timmins: (603) 788-3164
Kent Gustafson: (603) 271-2461
October 23, 2003

Bear Hunting Seasons to Close Early in Northern New Hampshire

CONCORD, N.H. -- The hunting seasons for black bear in northern New Hampshire will close in Wildlife Management Units (WMUs) A, B, C2, D1 and D2 effective November 1, for the remainder of 2003, officials from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department said today. This emergency closure is necessary to prevent long-term adverse effects on the overall bear population. It follows unusual environmental conditions creating a food shortage that affects bears' natural survival and productivity and has facilitated a high hunter harvest this fall. Click here for a map of bear WMUs.

New Hampshire's bear hunters have taken a record number of animals this season, particularly in the northern region. As of October 23, about 720 black bears had been registered by hunters statewide, nearly twice the five-year average for the entire season. A high number of female bears have been taken in the northern region -- one female has been taken for every male this year; typically hunters take 40 percent more males than females.

The high kill rate is driven by the bears' vulnerability as they leave their relatively protected forest habitat to search for food in valleys and floodplains. Normally, bears fatten up for winter on a diet of beechnuts and acorns. Those natural foods are in short supply this year. The bears need to prepare for hibernation, so they're out and about, eating corn from agricultural fields, fruit from trees or whatever they can find. As a result, the bear population faces losses from increased road kills and a rising number of nuisance bear kills, as well as hunter harvest.

In addition, Fish and Game anticipates indirect losses because of reduced bear productivity resulting from this year's poor nutrition. "We anticipate poor cub production this winter due to the poor health of adult females. For the same reason, we expect that some cubs born this winter may not survive," said Andrew Timmins, Bear Project Leader for New Hampshire Fish and Game. "In addition, one- and two-year-old bears may starve to death next spring because they didn't go into their dens this fall with enough fat reserves, and, when they come out in the spring, the leftover fallen nuts they depend on for food will be scarce."

By taking action now to close the hunting season in certain WMUs, Fish and Game hopes to mitigate some of the loss caused by the convergence of all these factors. "This year's harvest runs contrary to our wildlife management goal for the northern region, which is to stabilize the bear population," said Timmins. "With the timely closure of this area, we can assure that New Hampshire's North Country will continue to have a healthy and viable black bear population. In contrast, the White Mountain and central regions have management goals involving a modest bear population reduction, so there's no need to take action in those areas."

Bear hunting in New Hampshire is strictly regulated by Fish and Game. The Department works from a comprehensive wildlife population management plan, in place since 1997, which is intended to establish and maintain ecologically viable bear populations at levels consistent with diverse public interests for the benefit of present and future generations.

The state's bear population is managed on the basis of five regions. Each region has different management goals that are identified through a comprehensive public input process. Wildlife biologists carefully collect and monitor data on bear populations to provide a scientific basis for all management decisions. Data collection, research and management of the bear population -- as well as conflict mitigation efforts -- are funded exclusively by license and permit fees paid by hunters.

The general bear hunting season had been scheduled to end on November 11 in WMUs A, B and D1; and on December 7 in WMUs C2 and D2. The season had already concluded in WMUs H2 and K in southwestern New Hampshire. The season remains open in the remaining WMUs, as listed in Fish and Game regulations.

A question-and-answer on black bears and bear hunting in New Hampshire follows. Click here for more on the bear hunt.

Black bears and bear hunting in New Hampshire -- Commonly asked questions

How many bears are there in New Hampshire?
New Hampshire is home to an estimated 5,000 to 5,500 bears statewide. The bear population is seen to be healthy, viable and at a relatively stable level in all parts of the state. This population is as high as it has been in 200 years. Historic records indicate that bears were at record low numbers during the late 1800s following years of aggressive land clearing and unregulated hunting. Bears were bountied in New Hampshire through the mid-1950s; the population was roughly 1,000 bears in 1950.

The current success of the bear population is the result of forest recovery and a highly successful bear management program designed to maintain viable bear populations through scientifically accepted wildlife management practices. Regulated harvest and mandatory registration by hunters provides Fish and Game with essential data on which management decisions are based.

Is this the first time New Hampshire has had an emergency closure of bear season?
During a similar event in 1995, hunters were asked to voluntarily not fill their tags; but this is the first time N.H. Fish and Game has mandated an end to the season.

What will the emergency closure accomplish?
Bears reproduce slowly, so it can take several years for the population to rebound from a very high harvest or poor food year. This season's harvest has contained a higher-than-usual proportion of female bears, raising concerns that reproduction could be slowed in years to come. By closing the season early, fewer bears will be killed and long-term impacts on the overall bear population will be reduced.

How many bears are usually taken during the hunt?
From 1995 through 2002, the state's annual harvest average was 376 bears. Prior to 2003, New Hampshire's bear harvest record was set in 2001, when 527 bears were registered.

How many people hunt bear? What's the normal success rate for bear hunters?
About 13,000 bear permits were sold in 2002, a typical year. Black bear hunting is extremely challenging. In recent years, annual success rates have ranged between 2% and 3%, a reflection of the difficulty of taking a bear during normal circumstances. This year's success rate has been much higher, though an exact percentage has not yet been calculated. (By comparison, deer hunting success averages around 10% and turkey hunting success approaches 16%.)

Why does the bear harvest fluctuate?
Bear season harvests vary annually, usually in response to natural food production (mainly beechnuts and acorns). During the fall months, bears enter a period of accelerated feeding to gain the weight they need to carry them through winter hibernation. In poor food years, bears move out of remote woodlands and into fertile valleys where corn, pasturage and abandoned orchards provide alternate feeding options. Their increased movement and predictable feeding patterns during poor food years result in increased harvest and exposes them to other mortality.

Normally, over time, good food years and poor food years tend to balance each other out and allow for the achievement of management goals despite inconsistent environmental conditions. This year's unexpected failure of the nut crop is highly unusual and has created the need for immediate action to reduce population losses and protect this spectacular resource.

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