By Clay Newcomb

March 15, 2017

Bears are considered by many as the icon of the American wilderness. Their teeth, claws, strength and resolve to adapt and survive symbolize the vast and rugged continent from which the American identity was formed. Black Bears have the widest natural geographic distribution of any big-game animal, second only to the Mountain Lion. Of the eight bear species in the world, the Black Bear is the most abundant and widespread. Originally, Black Bears occurred in more places than even Whitetail deer. Today, biologists believe there are more bears than ever before. In a 2015 article in National Geographic titled “Black Bears are Rebounding – What Does That Mean For People?” the author states, “Scientists believe there are more black bears in North America than there were when settlers arrived in the 1600s.” With an increase in numbers falls a responsibility to hunters. The fall of 2017 may be the time for you to get involved in Black Bear management through hunting. It’s time to become a bear hunter.

Shane Auman Alberta Black Bear

Shane Auman with a big spring Alberta Black bear killed with a Mathews bow. 

By conservative estimates, there are 800,000 black bear in North America today. According to the American Bear Association website, it is believed that 500,000 black bears roamed the continent before European settlement. However, population estimates for black bear are just that, estimates. Understanding precise numbers of reclusive animals that inhabit thick, wilderness-type areas is challenging. According to an article published by the International Association for Bear Research and Management, black bears still reside in 95-100% of their historical range in Canada and 45-60% in the United States. Bears commonly reside in 12 Canadian provinces and 40 states in the United States. The article reports that black bears were randomly sighted, but didn’t have true populations of bears in only six states: IA, KS, NE, ND, OH and SD. Bears were completely absent only from the District of Columbia and four states: DE, HI, IL and IN. Six Mexican states reported having black bear. To put it in terms that we can all understand, black bears are thriving.


Expanding Populations


Through the whole Appalachian range in the Eastern United States (US) black bears are thriving. Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Vermont have been historical bear-hunting refuges. The Virginias, Carolinas, eastern Tennessee and Georgia have had huntable bear populations for decades. In 2010, New Jersey reopened their bear-hunting season to control a burgeoning population. In the 1950s, fewer than 100 bears were thought to live in the state. By 2001, the population was estimated 1,700 bears. Today bears have been sighted in every county and over 3,5000 bears reside in there, despite having the highest human population density in the US.

sam alberta black bear

Samuel Bumgardner with a big Alberta spring bear. 

Bears filtering out of Virginia and West Virginia have begun to recolonize Western Kentucky after an absence of over 100 years. Bear hunting was made famous by Daniel Boone’s legendary hunts on the Little Sandy River in the late 1700s in which he once killed 55 bears in a winter. Kentucky has a residents-only bear hunt in 16 counties, but bears have been documented in 41 counties. The record bear harvest was 45 killed by hunters in 2015.     

In the 1970s, the state of Florida had 300-500 Black Bears. Despite the effects of urban sprawl and sharing the state with 20 million people, the ancient swamps of the Sunshine State now hold over 4,000 Black Bears. In 2015, they reopened a limited bear hunt and killed over 300 animals in just a few days. The hunt was postponed in 2016, but they’re considering reopening it in 2017.

Oklahoma opened their first bear season in 2009. They started off with a hunt quota of 20 bears, but killed thirty in an unprecedented first day. In 2014 they removed the quota and now kill between 40-100 bears per year. The hunt is limited to only four counties, but biologists estimate that over 2,000 bears live in the rugged Kiamichi Mountains of Southeast Oklahoma. In my home state of Arkansas, our reintroduced bear population is considered the most successful reintroduction of large carnivores in the world by many biologists. Between 1954 and 1964, 254 bears were brought from Minnesota and Canada into the mountains of Arkansas. At the time, there were less than 50 bears in the entire state. Today biologists conservatively estimate 5,000 bears live in the Arkansas. We’ve had a bear hunting season since 1980 and have maintained a harvest of 300 to 400 bears per year since 2001 when baiting was allowed on private land in certain zones.

big black bear

It's exciting to be in the big woods of the North in spring. Big bruins make it even more fun. 

These are just the places were bears are coming into regions that once had them. Many regions never lost their bears so we don’t hear much about them. Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon, California, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Utah have had black bear populations for the last 10,000 years. In most of these states the populations are so strong they don’t allot many research dollars towards them. The bulk of North America’s black bears, however, live in Canada and Alaska.


Opportunity is A-bruin  


            Many regions have liberal bear seasons and are basically begging for people to come bear hunt. Idaho has both spring and fall seasons, and in many zones hunters can buy two tags over the counter. In Alaska, in many zones the Black Bear season never closes and each hunter can kill multiple bears per year. For example, Unit 19 in South-Central Alaska has a five-bear limit and the season never closes! A three-bear limit is common in many zones. Georgia isn’t known for it’s bear hunting, but they’ve got a two-bear fall hunt. Non-resident tags can be bought over the counter for just over $200. Canada is bear hunting’s el primo location. There is still time to book a hunt hunt with one of our preferred outfitters for this spring.

clay newcomb hunting

 Bear's are increasing in number across North America, but you'll still have to work hard to kill one. That's a good thing.