July 23 01:12 PM

Michigan's bears beefing up

August 01, 2007
Dial "M" for bears. Big bears! The first "M" would represent Michigan, arguably one of the finest states in the country to hunt bruins.

According to Doug Wagner, Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist in Crystal Falls, and member of Michigan's black bear management work group, hunters currently harvest over two thousand bears each fall in this state.

Michigan's bear population is alive and well, and has been nurtured in both numbers and animal size over the past decade due to the state's polished management plan.

"The state as a whole produces more and more large black bears under the current management system," said Richard P. Smith, Michigan's black bear guru. "And it's only going to get better."

One only has to look at the Commemorative Bucks of Michigan Big Game Records to understand the success story of this animal that was once somewhat taken for granted by Michigan hunters. Over the last decade, entries of record book black bears have more than doubled. The 1996 book lists 224 record bears taken with a firearm and 113 with archery equipment. The 2005 record book lists 481 with a firearm and 181 with bow and arrow. The black bear in Michigan is a wildlife management success story as enormous as the animals themselves.

Michigan bear hunters continue to reap benefits from the state's fine bear management program. Chuck Ryall of Gwinn arrowed this fine bruin at nine yards. Marty Kovarik photo
As Michigan bears grow in population and in size, records are broken almost on an annual basis. These figures clearly point out that quality bear hunting in Michigan is thriving. Out of the top ranked firearm killed bears in the state, over half, were harvested during the last decade.

The secret behind this great success was a zone, quota, and lottery system which began in 1990. Although by that point interest in strictly bear hunting had begun to grow, above all, the current management system raised the value of this game animal. Until then many of the black bears taken in the state were by opportunistic hunters. When a black bear showed up during archery or firearm season, it was often harvested almost as a second thought. Unfortunately, during the pre-lottery system, some hunters would shoot a bear when the opportunity came and then go out and purchase a bear tag.

During the 1980s, bear season in the Upper Peninsula ran from September 10 through October 31, and opened up again during deer season. In an attempt to curtail the after-shooting purchasing of bear tags, in 1989 the DNR stopped selling bear tags on September 9. If someone wanted to hunt bears in Michigan, they now had to think about it before the bear walked in front of them. The following year they ended bear hunting during firearm deer season and established the current lottery system.

According to Wagner, the DNR now dictated not only how many bears were taken but where the hunters were hunting. Part of the pre-lottery problem was that the east end of the U.P. was getting substantially more pressure than the west end. Many downstate hunters simply weren't willing to drive the length of the U.P. to hunt the west end. By regulating where the hunters were hunting and how many bears they took in each unit, the DNR could now fine-tune the Michigan black bear population. Historically it had been illegal for hunters to take cub bears, and in 1996 it also became illegal to take a sow with cubs.

According to Wagner, not only did the new management plan help bears get bigger, but because hunters were now specifically targeting bears, they became more conscious of how to use and score the animals.

Now for the rest of the "M" story.

According to Wagner, approximately 75 percent of the current bear harvest is from the Upper Peninsula, 66 percent from the west U.P. management unit. Back to the 2005 book; 64 of the 102 largest bears taken in the state came from the U.P. Twenty-eight of these bruins came from the second "M," Menominee County. Add in eight from Marquette, three from Dickinson, and two from Delta counties, and you have the U.P. big bear belt.

Some say the number one reason Menominee County is so hot for record book bears is the available food source. According to Wagner, the combination of lowland hardwoods and agriculture make the southern U.P. a veritable bear factory.

"It's a no-lose situation for the bears down there," said Wagner, "from first green up with spring alfalfa to a summer with ample foods available, and into fall with oaks, beechnuts and corn fields."

According to Wagner, not only does this abundant food source grow big bears, it grows lots of them. Menominee County has an extremely high reproduction rate. At least four times Wagner has seen a single sow with five cubs. In addition, black bears are also reaching sexual maturity and breeding at an earlier age in this area.

However, although Richard P. Smith agrees that the Menominee County bread basket does a great deal to grow huge bears, he believes there's more to it.

"They have a great growing season down there," said Smith. "However, you can't ignore genetics. They have an impact on skull size."

Smith points out that even substantially older bears that are harvested in Marquette County aren't measuring up to younger bears taken in Menominee County.

"In the northern counties bear skulls are not getting big until they are much older," said Smith. "There's a difference in the genetics."

Wagner also says that in some areas downstate, bears are seeing similar situations. In fact, the state's bruin population is continually creeping southward. The southern part of the northern lower is another bear hot spot.

Enter the third "M."

According to the 2005 record book nine of the current top 102 bears in the state came from Montmorency County. Add up the surrounding counties, including five from Oscoda, seven from Alcona, four from Presque Isle, and three from Alpena, and you have the northern lower big bear belt.

This area also matches much of the same characteristics as the Menominee County area, abundant wild and agricultural food sources and enough private or remote land for bears to grow big.

This is only part of the big bear story in Michigan. Record book bears have been harvested in all 10 of Michigan's bear management units. Michigan's black bear management is a huge success story providing over 60,000 hunter days annually. Black bear hunter success in Michigan is almost phenomenal. Since 1998, hunter success has been at 25 percent and higher.

The lottery along with the zone and quota management system has elevated the black bear's status to more than just an opportunity. It has allowed this fine big game animal to grow in numbers, size and respect.

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