Drawing a bear license in Minnesota used to be a routine thing. A hunter usually could get a license in the state's bear lottery every year or every other year. Those days are gone-at least for the foreseeable future. Now, a hunter might have to wait three or four years to draw a bear license.

In an effort to rebuild the state's bear population, currently estimated at 12,000 to 15,000 animals, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources again has been conservative with bear licenses this fall.

Minnesota's bear season opens Tuesday, and just 3,700 permits will be available in the state's "quota zone," or prime bear range. Another 2,800 or 2,900 hunters are expected to buy licenses over the counter in the "no-quota" zone on the fringe of the prime bear range, said Dave Garshelis, leader of the DNR's bear project.

"Our goal is to have less than 800 females shot," Garshelis said. "Last year, we had 615 shot, so we did pretty well on that."

Conserving female bears allows the bear population to grow in the same way that issuing fewer antlerless deer permits allows the the deer population to rebound.

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This is the third year in a row that about 3,700 bear licenses have been issued in the quota zone, Garshelis said. More than 18,400 hunters applied for licenses in the bear lottery, said Ron Kullman of the DNR license center in St. Paul. A total of 440 successful lottery applicants decided not to purchase licenses. Those leftover licenses sold in just three minutes when they became available Aug. 5, Kullman said.

Minnesota's bear population was estimated at 20,000 to 25,000 in 2001, but declined after some more liberal hunting harvests. In addition, the median age of females has dropped from 4 to 3 over those years. A median age that's dropping is probably indicative of an overharvest, Garshelis has said in past years. The age structure of females in the population is driving bear management now, he said.

Hunters took just 1,627 bears last year and 1,866 in 2013, the lowest harvests since the late 1980s. The success rate among hunters has been about 25 percent, Garshelis said.

"We're still erring on the side of being conservative," Garshelis said. "We're pretty certain this kind of harvest and the harvest we had last year would allow the population to increase."

Biologists believe Minnesota's bear population is now increasing, although the way population modeling is done, the most recent data is always for a period ending three years before, Garshelis said.

What they want

Most bears in Minnesota are killed over baits, which hunters or guides place in the woods. Bears come to baits more frequently when there is less natural food, such as acorns and hazelnuts, available in the woods. This fall, according to some reports, there appears to be less natural food in the woods than normal.

Jason Alto, a bear guide from Bovey, has seven baits out. Baiting became legal on Aug. 14, but a period of very warm weather followed by a period of rain has made bear activity inconsistent, Alto said. He didn't place baits until after the warm weather abated, he said.

"I've got a couple baits being hit, but it's still early," Alto said Wednesday. "It's hard to get a good idea of what's going to happen."

Kelly Shepard of Tofte, in his 40th year of bear guiding, said he thinks the season will be good.

"The food sources aren't real heavy, so we should be good," Shepard said. "We should be done quick. There are a lot of bears-smaller bears, but there are a lot of bears."

Garshelis said it appears to him, too, that there is less natural food available in the woods this fall. Alto said he has found a couple of patches of hazelnuts, and those typically draw bears at some point in the season. He places baits among the hazelnuts knowing bears are likely to visit them.

Wisconsin makes changes

Wisconsin's bear season is a stark contrast to Minnesota's. Permit numbers in Northwestern Wisconsin and statewide are the highest ever issued at 2,235 for Zone D (Northwestern Wisconsin) and 10,690 total permits for the state, said Greg Kessler, DNR wildlife manager at Brule.

"We expect a near-record harvest level with the number of permits issued, with the goal of decreasing bear numbers in some areas of the state," Kessler said.

Due to the increase in available permits the past several years, the waiting period to obtain a harvest permit has dropped from seven or eight years down to four or five years.

That's good news for the 109,088 hunters who applied for bear permits this year, Kessler said.

Two changes have been made in Wisconsin's bear hunt this fall:

  • All bear (and deer) registration will be electronic, either online or by phone at .(844) 426-3734. Collection and submission of a tooth is still required and instruction and a postage-paid envelope will be provided to hunters.
  • Residents and nonresidents may now participate in the following bear baiting, hunting and training activities without a Class B bear license (if those activities are permitted and in compliance with regulations): bait bears for hunting purposes (recreationally feeding bears remains illegal); train dogs to track bears; act as a backup shooter; and assist hunters with pursuing bears, provided that a person does not shoot, shoot at, capture, take or kill the bear (unless acting as a backup shooter).

Bear numbers are good, Kessler said, and many soft mast foods such as cherries, blackberries and dogwoods will be largely consumed by the opening of bear season. Acorn production varies greatly from area to area.

Hunters using dogs only start first this year, hunting Sept. 9 to Oct. 6, while hunters using bait or other methods can hunt from Sept. 16 to Oct. 13.

Turn in those teeth

For successful bear hunters, it's mandatory to submit to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources a tooth from the harvested bear. But not all hunters do so. Last year, for example, just 73 percent of hunters mailed in the required tooth, said Dave Garshelis, DNR bear project leader at Grand Rapids.

That worries Garshelis. The teeth are used to determine the age of bears killed by hunters. By knowing the median age of Minnesota's bears, researchers such as Garshelis can determine the age structure of the population. The age structure can help tell wildlife managers how many bears should be taken in future hunts.

"Our entire population assessment and population-trend research is based on this age structure," Garshelis said. "It's a crucial aspect of our bear management program. We should be getting 95 percent of the teeth. We're relying on only 73 percent, and we don't know whether that 73 percent is biased or not."

Garshelis asks that all successful hunters acquire tooth envelopes from bear registration stations and send a bear tooth to the DNR, whether those hunters register their bears by phone, online or in person.