By Al Raychard
Vermont is not a very large state. Wedged between New York on the west and New Hampshire on the east the state covers just 9,609 square miles, making it smaller than 44 other states. With less than 650,000 residents Vermont is also sparsely populated. Only Wyoming has fewer people. What Vermont lacks in size and people it more than makes up in woods and bears.
Over 78 percent of Vermont is forested making it one of the most heavily forested state in the country. In 1975 the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department estimated about 2,000 bears lived within the state, most of those centered along the spine of the Green Mountains. As more and more farms were abandoned reverting to forest habitats, the preservation of more than 30,000 acres of bear habitat, a ban on trapping bears in 1967 and baiting in 1972 and other initiatives that number had increased to an estimated 7,000 bears in 2010 surpassing desired management objectives in Vermont’s most recent Big Game Management Plan. By then bears were present throughout the state except on the Lake Champlain Islands, as it is today. As a consequence, human/bear conflicts increased encouraging the department to increase hunting opportunities.
Traditionally, Vermont’s 75-day bear season commenced September 1 and extended five days into the firearm deer season. For the first time, in 2013 the season was split into an early season and late season, and the late season was extended from five to nine days providing an extra weekend of hunting opportunity. An early season bear license was also implemented, allowing managers to get a handle on exactly how many hunters were actually specifically hunting bears. In 2020 some 13,866 hunters purchased early season bear tags. Historically, a bear tag was provided with the purchase of a big-game hunting license at no charge and has not changed.
In 2012, before the season split and late season extension hunters killed 610 bears in Vermont. In 2013 the harvest was 556 during the combined seasons, fewer than 2012 but still above the previous 10-year average. Biologists attribute this lower harvest to a high beech nut crop, when bears typically travel less and forage at higher elevations making them less susceptible to hunters. In 2014 the total bear harvest was 562, 450 during the early season and 108 during the late season, an increase of 63 bears over the 10-year average. In 2020 925 bears were killed during the two seasons, 831 during the early season and 94 during the late season. To say the least the early bear season has proven popular among hunters and has done its job of bringing the state’s bear population to within desired management levels of under 5,500 animals.
As it is in other states where baiting is prohibited finding food is a key factor when hunting bears in Vermont. During years of low natural food abundance, in particular beechnuts, acorns and hazelnuts as well as varies berries, wild cherries and apples bears tend to den early but during peak mast years bears can den later providing more hunting opportunity. Experienced hunters well know even though some years beechnut and berry production might be low acorns and apples might be abundant so that is where they concentrate their effort. Food abundance and variety varies from year-to-year and from region-to-region but whatever the case finding food, whether natural or agricultural such as corn and other crops as well as sign of bear activity calls for a lot of pre-season scouting or seeking access to private lands, and in Vermont hunters who put the time in are the most successful.
In general, it is possible to find bears just about anywhere in Vermont but most years Rutland, Caledonia, Windsor, Windham, Essex, Addison, Bennington and Orleans Counties not necessarily in that order are among top producers. All are located in the northeast region, down along the east and west side of the Green Mountains or extreme rural south region along the border with Massachusetts.
Considering its relative small size Vermont has plenty of room to look for bears. The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources owns and manages more than 345,000 acres of wildlife management areas, state forests, state parks and holds easement on 123,000 acres of conserved commercial forest land open to public access. Most of these areas are prime bear habitat. Groton State Forest covers some 26,154 acres in Caledonia and neighboring counties and the Mt. Mansfield SF covers over 37, 240 acres. In Essex County the Victory Basin Wildlife Management Areas offers nearly 5,000 acres and the abutting Victory Basin State Forest an additional 15,826 acres. In Essex and Orange Counties the Bill Sladyk WMA offers 0ver 9,380 acres. The largest chunk of public land is the Green Mountain National Forest. It is Vermont’s core bear range and covers more than 339,150 acres in two huge blocks roughly down the middle of the state. Hunters should also keep in mind private property can be accessed for hunting unless specifically posted otherwise. If you need a place to hunt bears in the Green Mountain State it is not hard to find.
Estimated Population: 5,500+/-
Annual Limit: One (1)
Hunting Area: Bears may be hunted statewide.
Spring Season: No
Fall Season/Dates: Yes. Early Season-September 1 through the day before the November rifle season (November 12). Special early season bear tag required. Late season- First nine (9) days of November rifle deer season, November 13-21).
Legal Hunting Methods: Spot and Stalk, hunting over natural and other food sources.
Dogs Allowed: Yes, with special permit. Certain regulations apply.
Baiting Allowed: No
License Availability/Cost: Over the counter, by mail and on-line. Res. Hunting-$25/NR Hunting-$102
Special Permits: Early Season Bear License-Res-$5/NR-$15
Legal Weapons: Handguns, conventional centerfire rifles, muzzleloaders, bow and arrow and crossbows. Check regulations for any caliber restrictions.
Contacts: Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department: (802) 828-1190; www.vtfishandwildlife.com