MADISON - Unlike other shooting sports in the state, bear hunting interest is increasing, and a management plan the Department of Natural Resources Board approved Wednesday, May 22, aims to sustain the bear population, hunter participation while minimizing bear and human conflicts.

Since the DNR last updated its bear management plan in the 1980s, the state's black bear population has tripled and the number of hunters has seen a similar increase, said Scott Walter, a DNR large carnivore specialist.

A new plan was developed during the past year by DNR staff and a 24-member advisory committee consisting of 11 stakeholder groups.

The plan's biggest change involving Douglas County moves the boundary of the previously named harvest Zone D east, past State Highway 13 to U.S. Highway 51, and it removes Burnette and St. Croix counties.

Douglas County is now in harvest Zone A, which has similar bear habitat to neighboring counties to the east. Douglas County also generated the most bear nuisance complaints, and including it in with Rusk, Barron and Taylor counties, which generate the most bear-related agriculture damage complaints, allows the DNR to more effectively address those issues, Walter said.

"Public comments (received when the draft plan was presented earlier this year), caused us to shift the boundary east, Walter said.

The population of Zone A has declined by about one-third since 2010 but those numbers should turn around with the inclusion of Douglas County, one of the state's most populous bear counties.

Hunter satisfaction is one of the main goals of the new plan. While hunters surveyed said they felt that a three- to five-year wait for a bear hunting permit was tolerable, wait times have ranged from five to 11 years depending on the year and area of the state.

Walter said the new plan could have some indirect effect on the wait times for hunters, but wouldn't know for a while.

"The new zone structure will lead to some rippling effects to our permit allocation process and might influence wait times. We're going to look at that before that change goes into effect in 2020-21 so we should have a better understanding of any potential impacts," Walter said.

None of the changes in the plan will take effect until the 2020 hunting season. The 2019 season will be conducted under current regulations.

The Humane Society of the U.S. was not a stakeholder in updating the bear management plan, but asked the DNR Board to end the practice of using hounds and bait to hunt bears.

Wisconsin allows putting out bait for bears, typically baked goods, for 145 days, while the next longest bait season is 23 days, said Megan Nicholson, HSUS Wisconsin's state director.

"Feeding bears with bait increases the likelihood of conflicts with humans ... because bears used to consuming human foods become less shy and more unpredictable," she said.

More than 70 percent of Wisconsin bear hunters use bait and hunt near the sites at which a combined 23 tons of bait was put out in 2017, she said.

About 20 percent of bear hunters use hounds which Nicholson called "unethical ... unsporting ... and scientifically indefensible."

The HSUS opposed hunting with hounds because it pits hounds against bears and often wolves.

Wolves kill bear-hunting dogs during the summer, when 16,000-20,000 dogs may be out training for the upcoming bear season. The state pays dog owners up to $2,500 per hound if killed by a wolf and since 1985, has paid out more than $786,000 for hounds and veterinarian bills.

The board had no response to Nicholson's testimony.

The board later eliminated a recommendation to expand hunting with hounds into Zone C, roughly the portion of the state below SH 64, where they are not allowed. The expansion was strongly opposed, even by Board Chair Frederick Prehn, who said area residents believed it would ruin the hunt for "bait sitters" - those who hunt near bait piles and caused trespassing problems, as hounds typically run 6 miles while pursuing a bear.

Walter later said that the advisory committee considered the negative effects of bear baiting, but decided not to curb it.

"The concern is the liberal baiting season we have in the state might have health impacts on bears including larger litter size and higher survival rates. But in the end, we don't know enough about it to recommend any solid changes to the current season," he said.

Further research on baiting and bear health will be pursued if funded by the Legislature, he said.

Bear hunting has an economic impact on the state. Bear hunters spent $1.05 million on permits in 2016 and an estimated $21.44 million last year, mainly in rural areas, on food, gas, lodging and other expenses associated with the hunt, according to the management plan.