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Bear population down in Northwest Wisconsin

MADISON — Northwest Wisconsin's black bear population appears to be in decline after years of increasing harvest numbers, a Department of Natural Resources wildlife manager said Wednesday.

The DNR Board this week decreased the number of hunting permits in northwest counties for the 2018 bear season to 2,315 from 2,600 in 2017. The DNR divides the state into four hunting zones. Northwest counties are designated Zone D and include Douglas County, most of Bayfield County, Ashland County north of State Highway 77 and west of State Highway 13 and State Highway 169, all of Washburn and Burnett counties, northwest Sawyer County, plus Polk and St. Croix counties north of U.S. Highway 8.

The number of hunting permits issued are driven by population estimates and other factors that impact the quality of the hunting experience and sustain the bear population, said Eric Lobner, wildlife management bureau director.

Zone D bear population appears to have peaked in the years 1999 and 2000, and has stabilized at slightly lower numbers since then, he said.

"In Zone D, we're seeing the percent of females harvested in seven of the past eight years exceeding 50 percent. That tells you there's a potential to drop the size of the population," Lobner said.

Also, the number of reported conflicts between hunters has increased over the years while there has been a sharp decrease in the number of bears captured due to agricultural damage complaints. Public complaints about other property damage have remained about the same, according comments the Bear Advisory Committee received last fall.

The harvest success rates in Zone D fell to 47.5 percent last year when 1,264 bears were harvested, the most in any zone; while 1,625 were harvested in 2016 with a 62 percent success rate.

"We don't target a specific success rate (for bear hunting) which is more of a social than a biological issue, "said Lobner. "We don't want to have so many permits that we're overharvesting the population."

Bear hunters continue to complain the DNR is over-protecting the bear population, because it can take eight years or more to get a bear license after initially applying for one. Lobner acknowledged that remains a sore spot with bear hunters, but issuing more permits would likely result in initial more bear kills and ultimately drive down the population.

"The population modeling shows a general decline in some areas of the state based on visits to bait stations and other data. Zone D's population has been generally stable. You don't want population numbers bounding all over the board. A constant population is a better way to manage," he said.

Statewide, the DNR will issue 12,970 permits this year, up from 12,850 last year and set harvest quota of 4,550, down from 5,000 in 2017.

The 2018 season in zones north of State Highway 64 runs Sept. 5-11 with the aid of bait and hunting with dogs runs between Sept. 12 and Oct. 2, also with bait.