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Black bear populations explode in northern Michigan following hunt limits

black bear
Michigan’s black bear populations are growing exponentially in the northern Lower Peninsula. (Shutterstock)

LANSING — Michigan’s black bear population in the northern Lower Peninsula is exploding — up 88 percent since hunting season was restricted in 2012.

That’s good news for hunters and others, but some advocates fear the resurgence will prompt officials to seek longer seasons and more licenses. The population of black bears in the northern Lower Peninsula has tripled since 1992.

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Black bears are doing so well in the northern Lower Peninsula that nearly half of hunters who get a license, 48 percent, kill one, compared to 28 percent of those who do so in the Upper Peninsula.

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The Department of Natural Resources has been incrementally increasing license quotas in some areas, which worries black bear advocates. 

Mike Thorman, a legislative director for the Michigan Hunting Dog Federation, said his organization wants the state to issue fewer licenses. 

“It’s not time to raise the number of tags way up yet,” said Thorman, who trains hunting dogs to chase bears up trees, but has never killed a bear.

 “We understand that there has to be population management, that goes without saying, but we’re worried that we’re taking too many (bears).”

Black bearing hunting is legal in all Upper Peninsula counties and in 33 Lower Peninsula counties north of a line stretching from Muskegon to Midland counties. 

Generally, in the Upper Peninsula, bear hunting season starts in early September and ends in late October. In the northern Lower Peninsula, the season is one week in September and one week in October. 

The season is shorter in the northern Lower Peninsula because so many people want to hunt bears and have a better chance of killing them and the DNR wants to maintain the population, said Cody Norton, a DNR large carnivore specialist.

“If we were to extend that season, people would be harvesting more bears than we want them to,” he said.

There are about 12,000  black bears in Michigan, more than 9,600 of which are in the Upper Peninsula.

Last year, 60,722 people applied for 7,001 licenses and about 1,863 bears were killed. Most of those, about 1,300, were in the Upper Peninsula.

Typically, hunters can easily buy a license to kill a bear in the Upper Peninsula whereas hunters in the Lower Peninsula have to enter into a drawing system that can take years to get a license.

“Once people draw a tag, they’re extremely motivated to go out and harvest a bear,” Norton said. “Part of that is we’ve been trying to allow the population to increase and now we’re getting to the point where we’re trying to stabilize it.”

Dean Oswald, who owns Oswald’s Bear Ranch in Newberry in the Upper Peninsula, said he worries that because of the population increases, the government will start issuing more hunting licenses “strictly for the money.” 

According to a 2019 economic impact study by the Michigan United Conservation Club, Michigan is one of the top states for hunting license purchases. 

Hunting and fishing licenses are the primary source of revenue for the DNR’s Game and Fish Protection Fund, which makes up about 20 percent of the department’s $464 million budget. 

Hunting and fishing licenses provided $62 million to conservation efforts in 2019, more than $40 million of which was from hunting licenses alone. By law, the money must fund wildlife management and conservation efforts. 

Oswald’s ranch is home to 39 bears from all over the country. Many are turned in as cubs who lost their mothers. Oswald said he wants the DNR to consider shortening the bear hunting season in the Upper Peninsula to two weeks, as it is in the northern Lower Peninsula.

“It definitely makes a difference,” Oswald said of limiting the season.

Bear advocates are not the only ones who want to see the populations increase across the state. According to Thorman, hunters pushed for short hunting seasons and lower license quotas when they noticed people were killing a lot of bears and populations were struggling. 

According to DNR, in 2006 when hunters were killing as many 2,000 bears in the Upper Peninsula and when the northern Lower Peninsula bear population had fallen to 1,300 in 2011.

Since the black bear population began booming, the DNR has increased license quotas depending on the area. Some units, regions where hunting bears is legal, have gotten a 5 license increase and others have seen 10.

Norton said the incremental increase in license quota is to manage the bear population without drastically impacting it. Unlike other animals, bears take a while to reproduce, and it can take years to see how changes to hunting regulations impact their population.

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While drastic changes to Michigan’s bear hunting regulations are not expected, the DNR is trying to strike a balance where there won’t be too many issues between the animal and people.

Complaints about black bears were steady in the Upper Peninsula at under 150 last year but increased quadruply in the past decade in the northern Lower Peninsula to above 200.

Norton said the northern Lower Peninsula’s higher number of complaints is unsurprising because it’s more populated and people are not accustomed to living with bears. The DNR does outline ways for people to limit their interactions with bears on their website.

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