Black bear management in Minnesota

Black bear management in Minnesota

March 7, 2010 - 7:23 PM CST

A little history

In 1965, Minnesota eliminated its bounty on black bears.  The state would no longer pay people to kill bears, but bears were still considered varmints to be killed in any number, in any manner, at any time.  Bears were caught in steel jaw foot traps to suffer until someone put them out of their misery.  The most common practice was for landowners to gut-shoot bears on sight.  People kept loaded guns handy.  Gut-shot bears died agonizing deaths up to 4 months after being shot.

Landowners did not want fearsome, pesky bears scattering their garbage, sharing their farm crops, and possibly eating their children.  People will not coexist with animals they fear or consider pests, and bear management of that time reflected the popular attitude.  Minnesota’s bears were driven to low numbers.  Maybe six thousand remained in the dense forests of northeastern Minnesota where people were scarce and huge areas had no roads.

Richard Anderson thought bears deserved better.  Richard is a lifelong hunter.  At the time, he was president of the Minnesota State Archery Association.

Shortening bear hunting from 52 weeks to 6

In 1971, Richard and I used data from my bear study to back legislation protecting Minnesota bears as big game animals.  Our goal was to protect bears for most of the year and allow only limited hunting.  We felt that protecting bears would give them new respect as game animals and be a strong move toward coexistence.  To achieve that, we sought the support of hunting groups, the public, key legislators, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.  Legislators Cal Larson, Cliff Ukkelberg, and Bruce Vento got behind the bill, and it passed.

The Minnesota DNR asked me to write the new bear hunting regulations.  Richard and I wanted bear numbers to increase at a rate people could accept through education.  We knew how slowly people give up beliefs they have held their entire lives.  Too fast an increase in bear numbers could create a backlash.  Above all, we wanted treatment of bears to be as humane as possible.

We limited the hunting kill by limiting the length of the hunting season.

Making the hunt more humane

We made the hunt as humane as possible through other regulations.  We disapproved of hunting practices in some other states and made certain bears wouldn’t have to face those problems in Minnesota.  One such problem is cubs starving after their mothers are shot in spring hunts.  Starving cubs did not represent fair chase and humane kills in our book.  We set the season for September and early October when cubs can survive on their own.

Another problem is wounding loss.  Wounding not only leaves a bear to slowly die or slowly heal, but it leaves the hunter free to shoot another bear to fill his tag.  To many people, a sporting hunt is one with weapons that can’t easily kill a bear and one in which the hunter stalks bears and pits his wiles against those of the bears.  In dense forests like those in Minnesota, this leads to fleeting glimpses of running bears and a high rate of wounding loss.  We wanted hunters to make quick, clean kills.  We banned weapons that can’t readily kill a bear, and we allowed the controversial practice of baiting, which brings bears into cleared openings and gives hunters plenty of time for clear, killing shots.

Richard founded the Minnesota DNR’s Bear Hunter Education Program to teach hunting ethics, including the need to shoot only when there is an opportunity for a certain kill.  He taught hunting ethics for the next 30 years.

Helping the population recover

I set about sharing my research findings, believing that the more people know about bears the more willing they are to coexist with them.  I worked to change attitudes through publications, lectures, and the media.

Slowly, people’s attitudes changed as they learned more about bears, gradually saw more bears, and realized that the information we were giving them about bears was correct.  People became willing to live among more and more bears.  Within 3 decades, Minnesota’s bear population quadrupled and nuisance reports declined despite an increasing human population.

Continuing need for education

A problem remains that the best educational efforts are constantly countered by sensational media, unnatural snarls on taxidermy, excessive warnings by government officials worried about liability, and misrepresentations of bears in hunting magazines.  The result is that too many people harbor excessive fear—largely a fear of the unknown.  There remains a huge need for education.

As part of that, we are excited about our ‘Bearwalker of the Northwoods’ documentary that will air on Wild Kingdom on Animal Planet April 4.  We hope that all of you see it and that you buy the longer version we ‘e offering in the web store and show it to everyone you know.  Changing attitudes is the key to coexistence.  Check out the ‘Bearwalker Combo’ offer in the web store.

Oh, I've never shot a bear.  What thrill would I get from that?  To each his own, but to me it’s a bigger thrill to hug a bear than to shoot one.

Thank you again for your contributions and support for our educational efforts.

—Lynn Rogers, Biologist, North American Bear Center

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