On Saturday, the DNR hosted the first ever Bear Symposium, where DNR researchers, wildlife biologists, bear hunters, and those interested in learning more about bears came together at the RAM Center to hear from each other. Nearly 100 people gave up the first Saturday of muzzleloading deer season to reflect on and plan for the 2015 bear season still 9 months away.
The main emcee for the event was the newly hired Bear and Wolf Specialist, Kevin Swanson. I truly don’t envy his job—while we all know the controversies surrounding wolf management in Michigan, people pursuing bears, watching bears, or living with bears in their backyard have a similar passion, and perhaps disagreement on how to manage bears in Michigan. This is not “who stole my picnic basket” kinds of disagreements, but are based in deeply held beliefs that there are too few or too many bear in a given area of Michigan and what to do about it.
The researchers at the DNR proved that they are “smarter than the average bear” and provided a great overview of ongoing research efforts related to bear in Michigan: the movement patterns of bears found in Southern Michigan, source-sink population dynamics in the Northern Lower, and predator-prey studies on whitetail fawns in the U.P. to name a few. A major take away there was that bears don’t prey on fawns nearly as much as people might assume they do and bears, especially young male bears, travel great distances all across the state, but still seem to prefer the wooded wetlands of the north rather than expansive agricultural fields in the south.
There was also major discussion surrounding a newly developed population model for determining how many bears we have in Michigan. Many hunters felt that it overestimated the population, but as sportsmen and women who have just spent the last 2 years (or even since 1996’s Proposal G) talking about sound science, we need to support these researchers and the tools they use to do their work. We can always choose to have a more conservative season depending on our goals, but this is the best available data our money (yes, our hunting license money) can buy. Any scientific model will have some flaws, for example this model is only good at the peninsula level not at the bear management unit, but that does not discredit its validity and still serves to inform discussions on regulations.
Following the symposium, bear hunters serving on the newly formed DNR advisory group called the Bear Forum expressed a consistent desire to see the bear population grow and to do so means a small or large reduction in bear tags available, depending on the unit. Increasing hunter success rates have contributed to going over the desired harvest in some areas. The Baldwin Unit in Northwest Lower Michigan, was the only unit where the desired harvest should increase and proportionately more licenses may be recommended.
Overall, it was a very positive first event to bring together the DNR scientists and the hunters and bear enthusiasts of Michigan and could be a model for other game species. The outcome of these discussions will feed into the regulation setting cycle in late winter with the Natural Resources Commission, which if Saturday’s event is any indication, will surely be another lively discussion.