By Bob Terry Fish and Wildlife Committee
Its tough to discuss the creatures that abound in and around Nelson Lake without talking about black bears.
Ursus Americanus is the most common bear in the world and is on the IUCN ( International Union for Conservation of Nature, a wildlife watchdog group) “least concern” list because of the black bear’s widespread distribution and increasing populations. In fact, there are twice as many black bears as all the other bears combined. “Blackie’s” population in Wisconsin, as most of us know, is increasing and is now estimated to be as high as 40,000. Most of these are squeezed into the northern third of the state. A respected mark and capture study is being done currently in Wisconsin and should shed even more light on true bear numbers, with results expected in 2013.
Bears are omnivores, favoring berries, grasses and forbs, insects, but increasingly are seen as predators on deer and elk, especially in their fawn and calf stages. Due to the intensely studied Clam Lake elk herd, black bears are now known to have nearly as much impact on young elk survival as wolves do.
Mating time is June and July with sows able to bear offspring by about age 4. Typically sows can produce young every other year and have 2 to 3 cubs, possibly more. One radio collared sow studied in Northwestern Wisconsin recently had five cubs, two litters in a row. Ten cubs in three years from one bear!
Now the good part. There is evidence that the largest black bears in the world are in our own forests of Northern Wisconsin. This bold assertion is based on information from several different sources.
One source is the the Boone and Crockett Club. Founded by Teddy Roosevelt (one of my favorite characters) in 1887 as a conservation and hunting club, it is well known as the de facto standard for keeping records of North American big game trophies, in thirty-eight different categories. After a hunter kills a bear, its skull is measured in a front to back anatomical plane, then added to a side to side anatomical plane measurement. All performed by certified scorers. The sum is the final measurement entered into the B&C record books. A minimum of a twenty inch skull score is necessary to “make the book”, a rare occurrence. A twenty inch black bear skull is highly unusual, and reflects an animal, usually a boar (male) of titanic proportions.
So how do Wisconsin’s bears rank in the Boone and Crockett record book of North American Big Game Animals? Would you believe-first? Remember, Boone and Crockett records go back over a century and are meticulously kept. I accessed the huge, searchable B&C database, and with the help of Petersen’s Hunting Magazine and website, made some interesting discoveries. Wisconsin is the undisputed number one state for Boone and Crockett trophy black bears in North America (hence the world, considering their distribution) with four hundred and seven (407) “Booner Bears” making the minimum list-257 in the last twenty years! Pennsylvania and Alaska are distant second and third with just over two hundred (200) entries each. Interestingly, for our friends to the west, Minnesota is sixth, with 132 bears making the list. Also interesting is that many Minnesota trophy bears came from the counties that border Northwestern Wisconsin. What is it about this place? Canada, as we know has a billion black bears but apparently not a lot of huge ones. Ontario comes in at 14th, 68 entries.
For fun, I searched by county and was a bit shocked. Six of the top ten counties in North America for harvested trophy black bears are in Wisconsin. Bayfield, Sawyer, Price, Rusk , Barron and Marinette (in the Northeast) Counties contributed 138 trophy bears. Bayfield County, Wisconsin has produced more Boone and Crockett black bears (31) than any county in the Northern United States, Canada or Mexico. Burnett, Douglas, Washburn and Pine County Minnesota are in the top twenty-five. As a perspective, Sawyer County’s twenty-seven (27) entries are more than most STATES have entered. Quite a pattern here. With respect to the big black bears of Alaska and the Rocky Mountains, the huge land areas per county there, almost five thousand square miles in Gila County, Arizona and Prince of Wales Island Alaska, (the highest trophy concentrations geographically), compared to only nine hundred thirteen square miles for Rusk County, Wisconsin, for instance, makes it appear Northwestern Wisconsin edges out even the wilds of the Western United States and Alaska as the big black bear king. There you have it. How can you discuss Nelson Lake area critters without considering the biggest black bears in the world? In the next newsletter I’ll have the latest info on black bear records from the Pope and Young searchable database-the archery records, along with the Wisconsin Buck and Bear Club statistics. Then we’ll look at the world’s largest whitetail deer antlers, and where they come from. Is it true Wisconsin is the trophy whitetail leader also? We’ll look at all the numbers.
Bob Terry (above) with his Southern Bayfield County Boone and Crockett black bear (20 and 9/16 inches, and over five hundred pounds) harvested in Sept. 2010. Bob’s cameras, observations and reports in the Bayfield-Sawyer-Washburn-Douglas “big black bruin” corridor of Northwestern Wisconsin, and his years of living, hunting, and guiding in trophy rich Buffalo County, Wisconsin, form the basis for a book he is writing on trophy game animals in Wisconsin. From the world famous “Bucks of Buffalo County” to the “Bears of Bayfield”, he mixes science and statistics with real life humor, including his own forays into close calls, questionable judgments, and dumb luck. “I’m actually a meat hunter, but I like to increase my odds of a trophy by putting myself in trophy neighborhoods” he quips. “There’s always some dumb luck involved in hunting and fishing though, and I’ll take all I can get!”
Hunters and outdoorspeople will be able to relate to his escapades. Like in the fall of 2010, on the fifth day of the Wisconsin bear hunting season, sitting in a tree three miles from any traveled road nearing nightfall, when a sow and three bear cubs materialized under his ladder stand. Four bears. Within minutes a second, larger sow appeared with two cubs. Three more bears. In fading light, and after clearing his throat to gain some attention, he had fourteen beady eyes scanning the tree stand he called home. From fifteen feet below his boots, he reveled as the two sows pushed and snorted at each other, banging the ladder leading to his stand, cubs and hunter watching the show. With a bow and three arrows in his hand, and his bear mace back at the truck, the only thing he could do was take pictures, and wait for their eventual exit. That exit came abruptly. In a flash, and with authoritative grunts from the mother bears, all seven scattered into the adjoining lowland swamp. Something spooked them, and I was scanning intently into the deep northern woods to see what it was.
The black ghost was flashing between maples far out into the downwind side of me in the county forest. A typical approach of a dominant male, spooking the sows away, momma knowing that her cubs were in jeopardy, of being eaten-by him. Rarely do boars go into the bait, and this big bear was no different. The game was on. He slowly and quietly closed the gap between us. Amazed at just how quiet he was as he coursed over downed trees and through patches of hemlock, I recognized him through the binos. It was Trouble. I had come to know Trouble as the four hundred or so pounder with a distinct hairless patch the size of a plate on his left shoulder, and a wispy white patch on his chest. He loved to have his picture taken by my trailcams, and he loved to chew, smash and break them. Several of them. He was notorious for not only vandalism, he had both ears split, presumably where “trouble bear” tags once hung, placed by the Ag Department during a “move” from bird feeder raids, garbage can antics or lounging on and eating corn in farm country, further South. I knew he wasn’t a Booner, but I was in the mood to fill my tag with a big bear that night. A bear with a story, even better. Then he did what smart boars do, an unpredictable move, to my backtrail. Even with my rubber boots on and scent-free everything, including tasteless chlorophyll based gum, he scented me. His nose went to the ground like an overstuffed black lab. He followed my entry trail, at about sixty yards out, and headed back toward my quad, parked in the bush about a half mile back. He was checking me out. With darkness descending quickly, I knew I wouldn’t be walking back home alone. -to be continued.
When not working in an operating room or prowling around the woods and waters of Northwestern Wisconsin, Bob can be reached at email@example.com.