Minnesota wildlife officials have cut the number of permits offered to bear hunters this year for the season that begins Friday, as the state tries to increase the number of black bears roaming the woods.
The Department of Natural Resources has cut the number of permits offered to hunters by 500, to 3,350.
Last year hunters killed about 2,600 bears in Minnesota. That's the most since 2010, and was driven by poor natural food availability for bears in many areas, a high number of hunters and a record high 50 percent hunter success rate.
Tom Rusch, DNR wildlife manager in Tower, Minn., expects fewer bears will be killed this year.
"Harvest levels are probably going to be a little lower than last year," he said.
The number of bears in the state has dropped to between 12,000 and 15,000, Rusch said, compared to a high of more than 28,000 bears in the early 2000s.
"Long term, the bear population is lower than where we want it," Rusch said. "To manage to increase that population, we want to back off on the permits."
Rusch said it can take longer to build back the bear population compared to other species, because females don't have cubs until they're 4 years old. The average age of bears killed by hunters is between 3 and 4.
"So they're not quite getting to the point where they're going to have cubs, and that's what's hurting the population growth," Rusch said.
The state doesn't have a statewide population goal. But Rusch said between 18,000 and 22,000 bears is a reasonable target.
The DNR is also asking hunters to avoid shooting radio-collared research bears. Researchers are monitoring about 30 collared bears across the state, many in or near the Chippewa National Forest near Grand Rapids.
The bears are also marked by large, colorful ear tags.
"We're asking hunters to watch out for these valuable research bears, and avoid shooting them. These collared bears are providing a lot of data being used in bear management," said Dave Garshelis, DNR bear research biologist.