Vt., NH both boast big boom in bear harvest in 2020

  • Mink the bear is seen in the woods behind a home in West Lebanon, N.H., just south of the border with Hanover, N.H., on June 27, 2020. (Bryan Marquard photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/14/2021 10:59:29 PM
Modified: 1/14/2021 10:59:22 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Hunters killed a record number of bears in both Vermont and New Hampshire in 2020 as more people took to the woods because of the COVID-19 pandemic and bears searching for food came into more contact with humans.

Vermont recorded 914 bears shot by hunters, a 22% increase from the previous high “harvest” of 750 in 2019, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department said on Thursday.

In New Hampshire, 1,183 bears were killed, 12% higher than the previous record of 1,053 in 2018 and 42% above the preceding five-year average of 836, according to Andrew Timmins, the black bear project leader for the New Hampshire Fish & Game Department.

Forrest Hammond, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife bear biologist, said that the average number of bears taken annually over the past 10 years was 608. The increase in 2020, he said, came in part as some 13,866 hunters bought an early-season bear tag.

“It was a poor year for natural bear foods, and we saw a surge in hunter numbers brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and perhaps a corresponding increase in the number of hunters spending more time in the outdoors hunting than in past years,” Hammond said in a news release announcing the totals.

In a phone interview, Hammond said Vermont’s bear population had been as high as 7,000 about 10 years ago, and is now in the middle of the hoped-for range of between 3,500 and 5,500.

But human interactions with bears appear to be increasing, in part as bears that used to be in higher elevations have started living in towns spread throughout the state, getting closer to food sources generated by people.

“The distribution has enlarged, and we think the behavior has, as well,” he said.

“They have been learning to exploit human food, especially bird feeders and garbage and chickens and even beehives,” he said.

Complaints about bears in Vermont also skyrocketed, from a then-record 800 in 2019 to 1,900 in 2020, though he said many of them were “very minor.” Hammond attributed the increase in calls, in large part, to more people being at home during the pandemic and seeing bears as a result, and to more people from other states moving to camps or second homes and being surprised even to see a bear on their property.

An increase in composting, spurred by a new mandate for Vermont homeowners that took place last summer, may also have drawn out the bears, he said.

“It was quite a challenging year in bear management,” Hammond said. “The bears and bear issues kept us hopping.”

In New Hampshire, Timmins said bears enjoyed an “abundant acorn crop last fall” but that an extended bear season, “concentrated food sources” and an increase in hunters led to the record harvest. The sale of bear-hunting licenses increased 15% during 2020, “likely a result of people having more time to hunt due to the pandemic,” he said in a written summary of the season.

In a phone interview, Timmins said New Hampshire is now home to about 6,400 bears, with more than desired in parts of central New Hampshire, including the Upper Valley north of Interstate 89.

“It’s above the goal in a few regions. We are actively trying to reduce densities in some areas,” he said.

John P. Gregg can be reached at 603-727-3217 or jgregg@vnews.com.




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