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Big game seasons find their flow

Big-game hunts in New York State have been mainly for deer, with bear harvests reported mostly as incidental successes.

Deer hunters still will be able to take a bear should one venture past a deer stand during an open season, but new regulations give hunters greater opportunity to secure a bear-skin rug or wall hanging.

The buzz this coming big-game season is the legalization of the crossbow as a hunting tool during the latter part of the archery season. But for bear hunters, the Department of Environmental Conservation has made significant changes to allow greater access and create seasons more compatible with deer-season dates.

Virtually all of upstate New York above the Tappan Zee Bridge will have an open season for bear with stipulations on which device can be used. The one exception to an open season is for Wildlife Management Unit 9C, which is the City of Buffalo and surrounding areas. Bow hunting-only areas are set up for Westchester County and a designated area of Monroe County surrounding Rochester.

Otherwise, hunters can travel statewide and find an open area for bear hunting. Seasons open as early as Sept. 6 in designated areas of the Catskill Region. An early bow season opens Sept. 13 in all of the Northern Zone from the St. Lawrence River to the Vermont border.

Scheduling compatibility is the key to bow, crossbow and firearms season openings. Now, hunters in the Southern Zone, which comprises all of Western and Central New York, the Catskills and Albany/Capital Region, will all see the same starts for deer and bear seasons. Bow opens Oct. 1 and goes to Nov. 14, regular/firearms season goes from Nov. 15 to Dec. 7 and the late muzzle-loading season runs from Dec. 8 to 16.

Reasons for these changes go beyond convenience for hunters, although they are a welcome adjustment. Black bear populations have increased and ranges have expanded, accelerating in recent years.

DEC officials have made these regulations changes to increase harvests and reduce negative bear-human encounters. Upstate Maryland has seen similar bear incursions, but the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has set a drawing and quota system for harvesting bears. Hunters and homeowners in Western Maryland often see more bears in their area.

Mike Sawyers, outdoors editor at Cumberland Times-News, publishes a weekly “Bear Watch” on the Outdoors Page, listing bears reported killed on area roadways, nuisance bear encounters with people, livestock and field crops, and other bear concerns.

A Pennsylvania Game Commission’s 10-year bear management plan ends in 2015 and, when initiated in 2006, it articulated an effort to balance bear and human presence with a minimum of conflict.

Open bear seasons in the Keystone State are mainly limited to four- or six-day hunts. Opportunities for bear hunting during the 2014 season have expanded. Most seasons still remain less than a week, but some areas allow for bow and gun hunts at the same time.

New York’s bear managers have also seen this expansion. When Tim Spirito began as a DEC Region 9 wildlife biologist specializing in big game, his reports featured deer dynamics with references to black bear presence. More recently, at a public forum, he noted that most of his time at the Allegany Office has been taken up with bear concerns such as nuisance complaints and bear movement.

Hunters in New York are asked to help the DEC in monitoring and studying bear. Successful hunters can become a black bear management cooperator by reporting their bear harvest and by submitting a premolar tooth to determine age.

For doing so, hunters receive a commemorative patch as a cooperator, and DEC officials will have a better handle on bear dynamics.