Michigan is widely known for its phenomenal fishing and abundant deer population. While the state’s black bears have always been part of the hunting scene, in recent years the bear population has remained steady and huntable. The Great Lake State also just happens to be a great bear state.
Black bears, Ursus americanus, have always been an integral part of Michigan’s wildlife, yet many people who have lived close to them have never seen one. I remember the first time I saw one. I was walking through some woods on my family’s property and came across a bag of garbage. I thought it was odd that it was there and wondered how it got there. When I got back to the house, I looked back at where I had just walked and saw the bear dragging the bag of garbage. I’m sure the bear was watching me when I walked through there. To say it was a little unnerving is an understatement. But bears will be bears and for the most part, they want nothing to do with us. On those incredibly rare occasions when bad interactions happen, well, bears will be bears.
Michigan’s bear population is in good shape, especially in the Upper Peninsula. Researchers have also kept a close eye on the trend of an increase in bears in the southern portion of the Lower Peninsula.
“Over the past decade or so, we’ve been able to maintain the number of bears statewide while providing hunting opportunities,” said the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ chief bear biologist, Dwayne Etter. “Our data is not refined enough to estimate bear abundance at Bear Management Unit levels. However, observations from one of our radio-telemetry projects in the west-central Lower Peninsula indicates local bear densities in that area are likely higher than anticipated.”
Hunting Michigan bears
Hunters looking to bag a bruin this fall need to apply now, as the hunt is a limited draw hunt. The majority of tags available are in the Upper Peninsula, with the western half getting the bulk of the tags and hunting pressure. I would have said lion’s share of the tags, but then I’d have to throw in a tiger reference to complete the pun, oh my!
For your best odds at drawing a Michigan bear tag, the Baraga unit, which covers the northwest portion of the Upper Peninsula including the Keweenaw Peninsula, offers the most available tags. Statewide, you stand about a 15 percent chance of drawing a tag. Last year, just over 52,000 hunters put in for one of the 7,906 available tags. In the Baraga unit, however, you’ve got about a 47 percent chance of drawing a tag. Compare that with some of the traditional bear hunting states and the odds are pretty good. The odds of drawing a tag for the Baldwin unit are low, but a preference point system is in place to increase the odds for persistent hunters. The best part is that resident and nonresident applications alike only cost $5.
The season structure in the Upper Peninsula allows for both hunting over bait and the use of dogs, although the first five days of the season are reserved for the bait hunters. In the three Lower Peninsula units, the first day of the season is reserved for bait hunting. During the last two days of the season, only hunting with dogs is allowed. Each unit has specific dates and seasons within each unit. Check the regulations for specific seasons and hunt availability before you apply.
Hunters can expect mature bruins in the area of 200 to 300 pounds. Michigan bears tend to have the typical black or dark brown coat. The blonde- and lighter-coloration varieties are very rare in the state.
Britney Starr, co-owner of Starr & Bodill African Safaris, was one of the lucky hunters to draw a bear tag last season. She hunted in the southern part of the Upper Peninsula.
“I hunted the Carney unit in Michigan’s upper peninsula during the first season,” Starr said. “Opening day was actually my dad’s birthday, and he was able to accompany me on a hunt. Because I live roughly nine hours from the area, a friend was nice enough to allow me to hunt on his property, and had been baiting the area before I arrived.”
Starr’s experience was made sweeter by her ability to take care of two of the biggest challenges of hunting bears—scouting and logistics. Getting a tag is one thing, but knowing where to go in a unit and setting up a bait station that will bring bears in on a regular basis are also a big part of being successful.
For bait, Starr hunted over a sweet mixture of oats, frosting, honey, and broken ice cream cones. Most hunters use sweets to tempt a bruin’s sweet tooth. Old, unsalable bakery items are always popular. Hunters in the northwest Lower Peninsula who travel north to hunt are fond of something that is a local secret for bear hunters—leftover residue from the area’s cherry production. Some of the cherry production facilities around Traverse City are known to make buckets of cherry “sap” available to bear hunters looking to make an irresistible bait pile. Commercial alternatives are also readily available.
A hunter may not see a lot of bears, but all it takes is one appearance to make a successful harvest.
“I saw the bear I shot within an hour of getting into the blind,” Starr said. “He was the only one I saw and he weighed in at 200 pounds. It was quite an exhilarating hunt. This was my first bear hunt. I had been applying for a tag for five years and was ecstatic that I drew one. I would have to say that my experience was very positive and I am very happy to have been able to kill a bear on my first try.”
Hunters looking to go after a bruin are encouraged to look into the wealth of information available on the Michigan DNR. Besides an awesome hunting experience, black bears make for great table fare and a story to tell your grandchildren about.
“Our present bear research projects are on the cutting edge of bear research nationwide,” Etter said. “We are presently experimenting with the newest techniques for estimating bear abundance and using GPS technology for tracking seasonal movements and behavior of bears. We are also evaluating landscape level population movements using genetics. These projects will help inform and improve management actions for bears into the future.”
One thing is for sure, Michigan offers a great bear hunting experience that is more accessible than many other states. A non-resident license is only $151 and a resident can get one for $25. Be sure to take note of Michigan’s restructured license system for 2014. All of it is spelled out in what should be every bear hunter’s first stop, the 2014 Michigan Black Bear Digest. With sound management funded by hunters, Michigan’s bear population will continue to be a gem of the Great Lakes region and a destination for bear hunters everywhere.
This article was produced in partnership with Pure Michigan.