Hunters kill more bears, but not enough to slow surging growth

Associated Press, 10/27/97 15:12

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) - Hunters killed more black bears than usual during the first half of the Massachusetts season, but state biologists say it wasn't enough to slow the surging growth of the state's bear population.

And they predicted Monday that problems between bears and people will increase in the coming years as more and more bears are crowded out of their normal haunts and into the suburbs.

Despite a voter-imposed ban on using dogs to track bears, which went into effect this fall, a total of 74 bears were killed during the weeklong September hunt. Nearly half of the bears were taken in corn fields or other farmland. The largest, taken in Worthington, weighed 290 pounds.

That's considerably more than the 24 shot last year when plentiful food supplies kept the animals in the deep woods. Yet it's far short of the record 134 bears killed in 1995 when an extraordinarily dry summer and poor acorn crop sent even more of the usually secretive animals foraging in fields and suburbs.

Nearly all of the bears killed by hunters are taken during the first half of the season when they tend to raid the corn. By the second segment of the season, which runs from Nov. 17-22, they have retreated into the woods where they are harder to find.

``Just to stay on top of the annual population growth west of the Connecticut River, we would need an annual harvest of 150-170 animals and this was half of that,'' said Rob Deblinger, assistant director for wildlife for the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

The problem is that with an estimated 1,500 to 1,700 black bears in Massachusetts, all the good bear habitat in the state's four western counties is already occupied, and the bear population is growing at a rate of more than 10 percent a year, he said.

``It's like money in the bank, only with money you get more money as the interest comes in and with bears you compound the problems,'' Deblinger said.

Without population controls, the state is worried about bears taking advantage of living so close to humans. Already bears have been found denning under porches and decks. They've ripped through screen doors to snatch goodies off kitchen tables.

And, while some people are willing to take on the extra work of bear-proofing their property, suburbanites tend to be far less tolerant of bears raiding the garbage than raccoons, he said.

``People reach a limit with big animals,'' Deblinger said. ``Then attitudes shift and they begin to think of them as a nuisance that ought to be eliminated. And that's really what we are trying to avoid.''

The division plans to review its hunting and other bear regulations this winter with an eye to trying to come up with a way to hold the bear population in western Massachusetts at its current level, he said.

The possibilities range from extending the season to contraception, which has never been tried on a widespread population of wild bears, he said.

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