Hunter interest in black bear hunting is still growing, even in a time when interest in other types of hunting is waning. For that reason, the 2019-2029 bear management plan has been hotly debated across the state at public meetings held by the Department of Natural Resources as well as sporting organizations.
The plan came before the Natural Resources Board (NRB) at its May meeting and there was no shortage of public and written comment. Board members also heard from many stakeholders for and against different parts of the new plan.
Scott Walter, DNR large carnivore specialist, presented the new plan to the NRB. He noted that a plan had not been created for management of black bear since the 1980s and a great deal has changed since that time. The species has continued to move southward in the state, expanding their home range. Currently, 54 of the 72 counties in Wisconsin have bear harvest opportunities. Given that movement, the impact of bears is much different now than in 1980. There are more agricultural damage reports as well as nuisance backyard bears.
Counter to the general downward trend in hunting interest, however, interest in bear hunting continues to rise. Walter reported there are as many as 10 times more bear hunters currently than when the former management plan was put into place. Because of this interest, learning more from various stakeholder groups was important.
A 24-member advisory committee was created to evaluate issues and develop recommendations which would be put into a draft plan to be put out for public comment. This advisory committee was made up of representatives from groups such as Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), the Safari Club International, USDA-APHIS, the Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association, the Wisconsin Bow Hunters Association, the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, the Wisconsin County Forest Association, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Wisconsin Hunters' Rights Coalition and various parts of the DNR. Seven meetings were held over eight or nine months, according to Walter.
After a great deal of discussion and input from the various entities, there was not much change in the season framework, but there were some proposed changes in the plan, some of which proved to be hot-button items. Walter reported there were 3,361 public attitude surveys completed, letting the department know how the public would like the department to respond to bear issues and management. There were also 1,232 applicant survey respondents. Applicant responses were from those who actually applied for a bear harvest authorization.
There were also six public information sessions held across the state, which received 331 comments on the plan itself.
Redrawing of zones
One change many hunters saw as overdue was the redrawing of the zones for bear hunting. At present, there are three zones, A through C, with Zone C comprising all of the state south of Highway 64. The proposed plan increases the number of zones to six, A-F.
Zone C is the central part of the state, D is comprised of part of the previous Zone A, with a slightly extended southern boundary. Zone E, Walter said, is essentially the driftless area of the state, and Zone F is the southeastern portion, where there is less bear habitat and higher human population densities. Zone D was extended south to capture more of the chronic agriculture damage issues in that portion of the state, allowing more flexibility in management of bear in that area. The border between Zone A and Zone D was moved a bit west to follow Highway 27 at the request of hunters in that area.
Currently, the bear plan has numeric quotas for population and harvest. The department felt the plan should move more toward a culturally acceptable target rather than a hard number. In 2009, Walter said, it was learned there were approximately 2.6 times the number of bears in the state versus the population estimates of the time, making goals irrelevant in regard to goal-setting.
The new quota-setting framework, he said, would better address issues such as agricultural damage, nuisance complaints, hunter crowding (including success rates and satisfaction), bear disease or health issues and allowing bears to maintain their ecological role in the state.
The bear advisory committee, he said, would meet and review the metrics as well as trends regarding those metrics and make adjustments to quotas as necessary. This would allow bears in each zone to attain a "cultural carrying capacity," which may be different from zone to zone. Zone F, he said, would provide for liberal harvest opportunities, as it is the least suited for bear.
One change hotly debated in the center of the state is the addition of hound hunting in what would be the new Zone C. Hounds are already trained in this zone, Walter said, making hound hunting of bears in that zone a logical move.
Hound hunters, he said, are an important group of users and allowing them to hunt in this zone would create increased harvest opportunity. Hunter harvest in this area generally falls far below quota, and some felt this would bring that number closer, helping attain management objectives.
Others, however, worried about trespassing and other issues related to running hounds in this manner. Stakeholder groups were split, but little evidence was present that there would or would not be a problem with this change.
Former NRB chair Terry Hildenberg asked whether the department had looked at starting the bear hunting season earlier as a way to increase harvest opportunity. He said he received several calls and spoke to more than a few people that are in favor of an earlier season.
Walter stated the intent of opening the season on the first Wednesday after Labor Day was to eliminate any possible conflict between bear hunters and Labor Day vacationers. He said there could also be issues with opening any season before Sept. 1, due to agreements with the tribes. Although there was a great deal of interest from hunters and stakeholders, the department decided an earlier opening date would not be part of the new plan.
As the board discussed approval of the 2019-2029 bear management plan, Hildenberg made a motion to do away with hound hunting in Zone C. Board member Greg Kazmierski stated passing the plan itself would not allow hound hunting in Zone C, and felt it should not even be included in the plan. It would have to go through the rule-making process, he said, and the way it was being presented, as part of the plan, was backwards compared to the way things are usually done.
Board chairman Dr. Fred Prehn, who hails from Marathon County, said he has heard from those opposed to hound hunting in the newly formed Zone C as well.
Hound hunters he has talked to thought expanding hound hunting into the central part of the state, while it may not cause conflict, would at least cause perceived conflicts, he explained. He felt hound hunting is centered in northern Wisconsin and should stay where it is.
Board member Bill Briuns, the loan dissenter, said he believes there is no evidence either way as far as potential conflicts and possible trespassing issues. He felt the board should go along with the recommendation of the department. From there, landowner issues could be documented and the board could make a recommendation next year as to whether or not hound hunting in Zone C was the proper way to look at management and harvest opportunities in that are
Ultimately, the board approved the plan without the addition of hound hunting in Zone C.
The chocolate debate
Another issue under discussion is baiting. Bear health was the main concern in this area. Hunters, several groups said, were allowed to use chocolate and other high-sugar foods in bait, which could be detrimental to bear health. Indeed, theobromine, which is found in chocolate, has been found to be toxic to animals. Walter compared using chocolate to bait a bear with feeding a chocolate bar to a pet dog, which most pet-owners understand can be fatal. Although there was an instance of three cubs whose mortality was presumed to be linked to theobromine toxicity, he had no evidence that bear health was negatively affected by baiting of any kind, he noted. However,he did say there may be some non-lethal effects of which the department was not aware.
When asked whether other states were looking at this issue as well, he noted that Michigan has banned chocolate from use in baiting bears.
Because there were still questions as to whether baiting, as it is allowed now in the state, was detrimental to bear health, bear health monitoring was added as part of the plan, Walter told the board.
The goal of the plan is to create health monitoring protocols as well as to develop an index to natural food abundance. These were some of the areas of research added to the bear management plan that will be put into place in order to better understand bear movements, survival, reproduction and success of damage abatement techniques.
The board made no changes to baiting and approved the 2019-2029 bear management plan with the only change being the removal of hound hunting in the newly-formed Zone C.
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