MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- It's a bull market for bears.
Minnesota's black bear population has grown to record levels despite attempts in recent years to stabilize it by increasing the number of hunters and expanding the hunting season.
Minnesota has an estimated 31,300 bears -- more than four times the population 20 years ago and an 11,000 jump in the past five years. It has been increasing by about 6 percent annually.
The booming bear population can be traced to changes in habitat, management and public attitude toward bears. For decades, there was no hunting season on them; they were shot indiscriminately. A season was launched in 1971, and restrictive hunting quotas were initiated in 1982.
Concerned that the burgeoning bruin population will increase human-bear conflicts, the Department of Natural Resources will, for the first time, allow bear hunters to take two bears instead of one this season. Minnesota will be the first state in the nation to allow a two-bear limit.
"We need to shoot more bears, that's the bottom line," said Steve Merchant, the DNR's big-game program manager.
At no additional cost, hunters will get two black bear tags instead of one when they purchase their license.
Over the years the DNR has increased the number of bear hunting permits it offered -- from less than 10,000 in 1994 to nearly 22,000 last year. And last year it opened the season a week early.
Five consecutive years of plentiful food in the woods -- including berries, hazelnuts and acorns -- has hampered hunter success. The plethora of food means bears aren't attracted to bait placed in the woods by hunters. The DNR had hoped hunters would harvest 6,000 bears last year; instead they killed fewer than 4,000.
This year, the agency hopes hunters will harvest between 5,000 and 7,000 bears, which could come close to checking the population growth.
The DNR is concerned the large bear population will create bear-human clashes when a bad food year occurs. The number of nuisance bear complaints varies from year to year, but has averaged a couple hundred in recent years. Those complaints include bears eating crops and breaking into cabins, garages and garbage cans for food.
In 1995 -- the last year in which natural food conditions were poor -- the number of bear complaints multiplied. "We had 5,000 complaints," Merchant said.
He said the state is overdue for another bad food year. And -- with an even higher bear population than 1995 -- the agency could be overwhelmed with complaints when that occurs.
Many people enjoy seeing black bears, Merchant said. Like wolves, they represent a wild character still evident in the state.
"It's definitely a success story in wildlife management. We don't want it to become like the urban goose issue, where they become a nuisance," Merchant said.
The DNR sought ideas from the public on how to increase the bear harvest. The one resounding suggestion they heard from hunters was to not increase the number of hunters in the woods.
"We've been hearing some complaints for the past several years of crowding and interference among hunters, which leads to conflicts," said Ed Boggess, DNR wildlife program manager. "This is a way to increase harvest without increasing hunter crowding."
The DNR plans to offer the same number of hunting permits as last year, 20,710. In recent years, about 30,000 hunters have applied for the limited number of permits.
Officials rejected several other ideas to try to increase harvest, including a split bear season, a spring bear season or allowing hunters to use dogs. A spring season is controversial because female bears with cubs can be killed.
"It's an emotional issue, and we were reluctant to go down that road," said Merchant.
The use of dogs to hunt bears, though used in other states, including Wisconsin, also has been controversial. "We're remaining neutral, but people have strong feelings. Most Minnesota bear hunters oppose the use of hounds," Merchant said.
Few hunters likely will shoot two bears, Merchant said. But officials are hoping that the hunter success rate, which has averaged about 24 percent the past five years, will increase. Some hunters currently pass up smaller bears in hopes of bagging a large one, Merchant said. Those hunters sometimes go home empty-handed.
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