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A team of us started a Learn to Bear Hunt (LTBH) program two years ago to give students who would not normally have such an opportunity a chance to experience a bear hunt under the guidance of experienced mentors. We modeled the workshops and special hunt after similar Learn to Hunt programs offered at DNR's Sandhill Outdoor Skills Center. I was fortunate to have been part of that Sandhill team as superintendent for 10 years. On a statewide basis, these programs were set up to introduce recent hunter education graduates in Wisconsin to pheasant, turkey, small game and deer hunting, and they've been going strong since 1996.
Like these other programs, the bear program offers the students a combination of classroom training with practical talks, good food, the chance to meet a community of enthusiastic hunters, and hands-on hunting opportunities that stress safety and fun. These bear hunting workshops started modestly in northern Wisconsin in 2005 with 15 students in two locations. Last year, the program expanded and 52 students in 15 northern counties were offered training workshops in mid-August and special two-day hunts in late August. These special youth hunts are scheduled in advance of the 35-day bear season that runs in September and October.
For those students chosen for the program, a bear hunt is a rare treat. Black bears have low reproductive rates and hunting quotas are tightly regulated to avoid overharvest. Demand for the approximate 2,500 bear permits available statewide is so high that hunters typically have to wait six to nine years to receive a harvest permit. For this student training program, we intentionally selected students who do not have access to bear hunters through their families or friends. Some of the participants are selected for this rare opportunity because it is a welcome change from trying circumstances that they have already faced in their short lives. For instance, some spaces in the program are offered to young students who have life-threatening illnesses and long-term disabilities.
The program starts with a workshop where all the participating students are invited to gather in one location to learn about black bear biology, management and hunting tactics. Parents are invited to the session to share this part of the experience with their son or daughter. The training was developed by a team of conservation wardens, wildlife biologists and volunteer instructors from the Wisconsin Bear Hunters' Association – seasoned hunters who "talk bear" lifestyles and habits.
Biologists explain how bear populations are estimated and how these field surveys are used to set harvest quotas that sustain the slowly growing statewide bear population. The field specialists also explain management issues caused by spreading bear populations and even faster spreading human populations. We explain how land development can lead to bears causing agricultural damage or concerns if bears become habituated to people. If they are deemed "nuisances" in neighborhoods or camping areas, bears are live-trapped and relocated.
The training workshop also covers bear hunting ethics, firearm safety, and rules and regulations specific to bear hunting. Students also learn about the two prevalent methods of hunting bear over bait or by pursuit with hounds.
Students are then matched up with mentors and about a week later get to go on a bear hunt. Groups providing instructors, chaperones and hunting mentors during the first two years of the Learn To Bear Hunt Program included the Wisconsin Bear Hunters' Association, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, the U.S. Forest Service, Safe Hunters of Tomorrow, the United Special Sportsmen Alliance, county forest staff, and hunters who have participated in other Learn To Hunt courses.
The mentors and kids have a great time together so all the coordination and planning really pays off. Students hunting over bait may go afield with one or two mentors, but those hunting with hounds may need an entourage of up to eight people for every young hunter given what it takes to handle dogs and get ready. Students who don't have their own hunting gear are often loaned appropriate boots, clothing, safety equipment and firearms. The hunting experience includes checking baits for signs of bears, learning to track moving bears, handling hounds, firearm safety, approaching bears and coaching on shooting.
I'm often asked "How successful were the students?" My answer is always the same. They are all successful, whether they harvest a bear or not. In fact, the students do about as well as seasoned hunters. Almost 71 percent of the students harvest a bear during the two-day special hunt (last year 37 of our 52 students.) We attribute this to matching the students to highly motivated mentors who put their heart and soul into the students' hunt. We also show the students how harvested bears are tagged, registered, measured, weighed and aged. A tooth and rib are collected from each bear as part of on-going research programs. Students also learn how the hide and meat are processed.
Through this Learn to Hunt experience, the students bond to veteran bear hunters, volunteers and the DNR staff like extended family. We estimate that between 50-60 people from the community (including family and friends) get positive impressions about the program for each student who attends. I think it has to do with the committed volunteers who invest a part of themselves into each program.
"This was my best hunting experience," said Jordan, a 17-year-old. "I will never forget it."
"This program meant a lot to me," said Emily Beer, 15. "Without it, I would never have gone bear hunting. It meant a lot to get all that help from the warden and other volunteers on the field day. They donated time to help me better understand all the work that goes into bear hunting, but they also showed me the fun and thrill of the hunt. I appreciated the guides. They were a lot of fun to hunt with and were a great group of people. They helped answer my questions so I would know what to do during and after the hunt, and they made me feel comfortable doing everything."
Learn to Bear Hunt workshops are limited to those counties with larger bear populations, typically in northern Wisconsin. If a Learn to Bear Hunt program will be offered, wildlife managers will announce they are accepting applications through notices in local newspapers and postings at northern DNR Service Centers in late July and early August. The number of class openings varies each year depending on the number of unclaimed bear harvest permits.
As the program grows in popularity and more regions of the state offer a chance for kids to take part, we hope to keep providing a consistently high-quality experience that is rewarding for students and volunteers alike.
Mike Zeckmeister is the regional wildlife supervisor at DNR's Antigo Service Center.