MILES CITY, Mont.--During the spring and fall of 2006, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) implemented region wide quota-based black bear hunting seasons across southeast Montana in response to increased sightings and sportsmen interest. After six consecutive years of regulated black bear harvest, populations looked promising enough that the MFWP Commission recently approved a fall quota increase from 4 to 8 bears, which will take effect this fall.
Regional black bear management objectives strive to sustain populations at a level that promotes social tolerance and minimizes human or livestock conflicts, while optimizing recreational opportunity for sportsman and wildlife enthusiasts. Black bears can be harvested by licensed hunters anywhere across the region. Black bears actively harassing or attacking livestock can be harvested without a license by livestock owners; however these harvests are required to be reported to MFWP. One male was removed in 2012 by a livestock producer after it depredated a flock of sheep. Five additional incidental harvests have been reported since 2003.
Annual black bear seasons include: 1) A spring season, any legal weapon, which runs from April 15 until May 31 2) A fall season, archery only, which runs from September 7 until September 14 and 3) A fall season, any legal weapon, which runs from September 15 until December 1 or until harvest quotas are met.
During the 2012 Region 7 black bear hunting seasons, region wide either sex quotas of 2 and 4 were in place for the spring and fall. Five black bears were harvested; one in the spring and four in the fall. Three were males and two were females. Age results won’t be known until mid summer. This marked the third consecutive year and the fourth time in seven years that the fall quota was met. Fifty-five percent of Region 7 black bear harvests were by hunters targeting some other species. Most of those were elk or deer hunters in the fall. Region 7 also has more hunters in the field during the fall; most of which come to southeast Montana to hunt deer, elk, antelope, or upland game birds and opportunistically hunted bears while they were here. The spring quota has never been met.
Since the inaugural (2006) seasons, 20 black bears have been legally harvested in Region 7; 14 males and 6 females. Of those 20 harvests, 12 were aged by cementum annuali analysis. Eleven were sub-adults (1-5 years old) and 1 was an adult (6-10 years old). Wildlife Biologist Dean Waltee expects ages of harvested bears to increase in the years to come. A bear that was 10 years old was harvested during the 2011 seasons. This was the first bear older than 4 that was harvested in Region 7. “I suspect there are more bears across the region than most people think and plenty of bears have been surviving hunting seasons”, Waltee said. “We are getting more reports of sows with cubs every year and Montana research has shown that sows rarely reproduce prior to 4 years old and the average age of first reproduction is 6. Sows with cubs indicates to me that there are older bears on the landscape that we are not harvesting,”
In addition to hunter harvests, 6 incidental harvests have been reported since 2003. Those include road kills and livestock and crop depredation removals. Incidental harvests do not count towards the regional harvest quota. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks encourage reporting incidental harvest to area employees or regional offices.
According to Waltee, regulated black bear harvest has been a successful management tool in Region 7. “Sportsmen have harvested 20 black bears while only three have had to be removed for property damage or human safety reasons. This suggests to me that we are maintaining viable populations of black bears while increasing public recreational opportunity and minimizing damage to private properties; especially livestock.” The most common issue to date has been damage to stock tank floats; which bears break while utilizing stock tanks for water and to cool down. Overall, social tolerance of black bears across southeast Montana remains high and reported livestock depredations have been few.
Looking forward, Waltee expects black bear populations to continue to grow and expand across the region. An analysis of suitable black bear habitat and population potential demonstrated that black bear potential across Region 7 exceeds previous estimations. Waltee suspects that the recently approved fall quota increase will simply be the first of several needed to address growing populations.
“Population trends will be most influenced by harvest,” said Waltee. “The natural black bear forage base present across southeast Montana, which includes deer, elk, antelope, insects, a variety of small mammals and birds, green vegetation, and berries is annually plentiful. Disease and weather have not been limiting factors; although prolonged doubt could become one.” “The goal”, Waltee said, “will be using regulated hunter harvest to maintain populations well within the natural prey capacity so black bears have little or no need to predate livestock or severely suppress big game populations.”
Waltee emphasized that management of black bears across southeast Montana will be a continual process of balancing sustained populations and desired recreational opportunities with tolerance from private landowners and big game hunters. “When it comes to managing large carnivores in southeast Montana, we need to recognize that the region is mostly privately owned and utilized for livestock production. Too many black bears can become very problematic. We also need to remain cognizant that overharvest could result in an unnecessary loss of recreational opportunities and negatively impact our ability to utilize regulated harvest on federal lands, as has occurred in other states,” said Waltee.
Anyone interested in more information about black bear management in Region 7 should contact Wildlife Biologist Dean Waltee at (406) 436-2327 or firstname.lastname@example.org.