The Wisconsin DNR has proposed, and the Natural Resources Board has adopted a new bear hunting management plan. The current plan was adopted in 1980 so it was a bit out of date. In the thirty-nine years since the last plan was adopted, many factors in bear management have changed. The two factors with the largest change are an expanding bear range and an expanding bear population. In 1980, the bear population was limited to the northern third of Wisconsin i.e. most of the bear lived roughly north or near U.S. Highway 8. The bear population has also greatly increased in the same time frame. A study that occurred in the last 6 years determined there were roughly three times as many bears in Wisconsin as previously thought.
The new Plan has many interesting new features. One on the most innovative features is that the new plan will not use numerical quotas to set harvest total but use a number of metrics to determine harvest total. The metrics that will be used to determine bear population goals and subsequently annual harvest quotas include agricultural damage, nuisance complaints, hunter crowding, success, and satisfaction, bear disease and health issues, and maintaining bears’ ecological role. The bear advisory committee will study the data on a yearly basis and help to set the harvest quotas. Most species are managed with a specific population goal that is maintained by increasing or decreasing the harvest quotas. By managing with a variety of metrics, the DNR will be working on a different approach to game management. It will be vital for the DNR to gather sound scientific data on the bear population since black bears are vulnerable to over hunting. Part of the plan calls for extensive scientific research on the number of bears in the woods and periodic reviews of the estimates to ensure that an accurate population count is established and maintained.
Dealing with nuisance bears and agricultural damage from bears is also written into the plan. One feature of the damage abatement portion of the plan will allow the DNR to issue ag damage kill permits to landowners who have a history of bears damaging the crops before the crops are damaged, so the landowner can respond quickly when further damage occurs. Bears really like corn that is in the “milk phase” and this proactive approach may help limit the damage done to corn crops.
There are two types of way to measure the potential for a wildlife population-biological and cultural carrying capacity. Biological carrying capacity is the number of animals that can survive in an area given the amount of food and the amount of space the critters need. The cultural carrying capacity is how many critters people will tolerate in a given area. This plan is designed to manage the bear population based on the social carrying capacity.
The other major change in this plan is the redrawing of the bear hunting zones. Under the old plan there were four zones. Zones A, B and D covered the northern third of the state and Zone C covered the remainder of the state including Dunn County. Under the new plan, there will be five zones. Zone A, B, and D will still be in northern Wisconsin. However, the boundary of Zone D will shift southward from highway 8 to highways 64, 128, 170 and 40. So Southern Barron County and Northern Dunn County will now be in Zone D. This also means that norther Dunn County will go from being a bait only hunting area to an area that hunting with hounds and bait will be allowed. Zone C will shrink to primarily cover the central portion of the state. A new zone E will cover most of the western part of Wisconsin including the southern two-thirds of Dunn County. And a new Zone F will cover much of eastern, southern, and a portion of central Wisconsin.
The DNR plan states that they will manage zone A, B, C, D, and E for the cultural carrying capacity of the Zone and that they will provide liberal harvest opportunities in Zone F. Liberal harvest opportunities translates as keeping bears out of zone F as much as possible. Zone F has the least suitable bear habitat and the densest human population, hence the potential for bad human-bear interactions is the greatest there.
Besides changing the zones, it was also proposed that the new Zone C be opened to hunting bears with hounds. This change proved to the most controversial provision in the new plan. Many hunters in the new zone C were opposed to allowing hunting with dogs in the Zone for a variety of reasons which included lack of public land in some areas of the Zone, trespassing issues, bear hunter overcrowding, disruptions to bait hunters who have hunted this area in previous season, and conflicts with bow deer hunters. The hound hunters contend that hound hunting is a more efficient method of hunting so nuisance bears would be more likely to be harvested. They also noted that training bear dogs is currently permitted in this area. At the end of the debate, the Natural Resources Board decided to remove the hound hunting in Zone C from the new plan.
The issue of the use of chocolate in bear bait was also discussed by the Natural Resources Board. Chocolate contains theobromine which is toxic to some animals. Dogs are particularly vulnerable. Documented deaths of bears from theobromine poisoning have occurred in New Hampshire, and Michigan. As a result, Michigan has banned chocolate in bear baits, and New Hampshire has a near total ban on chocolate in bear baits. In Wisconsin, 3 cubs found dead in 2011 were necropsied and presumed to have died from theobromine poisoning. In 2013, the DNR issued an advisory about use of chocolate in baits. Since then there have been no documented bear deaths from theobromine in the state. This is an issue that will get more scientific study under the new plan.
Now that the plan has been adopted, the long process begins to write the rules needed to implement the plan. The rules writing process usually takes a fair amount of time. The earliest the new rules will go into effect will be for the 2020 hunting season.