By John MacNaught, Wildlife Specialist for the Catskill Forst Association
The population of black bear in the Catskill region is steadily rising. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) 2013 annual black bear harvest summary, 636 bears were taken in 2013 in the southeastern zone of New York State. This number is up from the 2012 hunting season which had a take of 442 bears, and is also higher than the previous five year average of 521 bears taken per season. A higher black bear take may indicate a larger population of bears within the southeastern hunting zone, though harvest success is also factored by natural food availability, weather, and hunter participation.
The NYS DEC has recently released a ten year black bear management plan for 2014-2024. Several changes are being proposed in an attempt to stabilize, and eventually reduce the population of black bears in the Catskill region. The most controversial proposed change I have heard people debating thus far is the proposed implementation of a 16 day early firearm season for black bear hunting beginning the first Saturday after Labor Day.
Through people I have spoken to and public comments I have read, I gather that the proposed early hunting season is a concern to hikers and other fall recreationalists within the Catskill Park. The month of September can offer some of the most rewarding hikes as exhausting temperatures begin to drop and fall foliage emerges with shorter day length. I’ve found that many hikers are concerned with public safety during times when hunting seasons are open. As both an avid hiker and an avid hunter, I have a good understanding of both sides of this argument, but I strongly believe hikers and hunters can co-exist with no concerns for safety as long as the proper measures are taken.
Since the 1960’s an early bear season has occurred within the Adirondack Park during the months of September and October. Yet, the Adirondack Park sees thousands of recreational hikers in the area each year as they enjoy the fall foliage hikes. From my personal experience of hiking in the Adirondacks during the early bear season, the general public has little concern for their safety knowing that hunters are in the woods with them, and any hiker that is concerned is wearing blaze orange to be seen more clearly.
Black bears are generally skittish animals and will avoid interactions with humans whenever possible. Most hikers use marked and maintained trails for convenience. Black bears will typically not walk the same path when people are actively using the trail, unless to travel for only a short distance. From the hunter’s standpoint, he or she will likely choose to pursue a bear well away from a trail where people actively hike. Their chances for success are too low near the trail. This alone separates hunters from hikers by great distances.
Personal experience with actively hunting black bears during the early Adirondack season is that it is extremely difficult and chances of success are highly unlikely. Due to foliage remaining on the trees, predicting where a bear will be and then harvesting it is very tough. Even by utilizing a great deal of scouting and preparation, it still remains challenging to harvest a bear. The NYS DEC annual bear take summary reports that only 84 bears were taken in the 2013 early Adirondack bear season, with a five year average being 244 bear per season. Hunters actively harvesting black bear within the early season are not in high numbers and I feel that an early bear season within the Catskills will resemble similar figures.
I think that hikers within the Catskills are cautious about the idea of an early bear hunting season mainly because they are afraid for their safety. The NYS DEC has no record of a hunting related injury ever to have occurred upon a hiker in the past fifty years (or more).
Based on reading public comments I have gathered that hikers feel an early bear hunting season will flood the wilderness areas with hunters similar to how hunters are active in the woods during deer season. I do not believe this will be the case. In the NYS DEC black bear management plan for 2014-2024 it is explained that only 25% of big game hunters report having an interest in shooting a bear and less than 10% of big game hunters actively pursues black bear. Therefore the majority of bear hunters will harvest a black bear only if the bear presents itself opportunistically while they are deer hunting. Because only a small percentage of hunters actively pursue bears, implementing an early season within the Catskills will likely go unnoticed by the majority of hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts. Less that 0.5% of all New York State big game hunters successfully harvest a bear each year.
I have seen public comment asking the DEC to consider allowing hunters to take more than one bear and to extend the bear season longer into December as an alternative to an early season. This will likely have minimal effects on populations as most hunters choose not to shoot a bear, or will only shoot one if given the opportunity, and the majority of bears have entered their den by the first week in December leaving probability of success very low in December.
The NYS DEC is accepting public comments on the black bear management plan for 2014-2024 until July 7th. The black bear management plan can be found at http://www.dec.ny.gov/press/97082.html along with instructions on how to submit an official public comment. I encourage all who are interested to read the management plan and submit their thoughts to the NYS DEC or to contact the Catskill Forest Association with any other concerns at (845) 586-3054.