The DNR Has Michigan’s Bear Count All Wrong?

Richard P SmithBucks n Bears

ground shrinkage

By:  Richard P. Smith.

If 116 Michigan residents, many of whom were bear hunters, either saw or had trail camera photos of 1,000 black bears in the state during 2015, how many bears do you think were seen and photographed by the thousands of other hunters and nonhunters last year? If I had to make an educated guess, it would be more than 50,000. Some of those bear would have been seen and/or photographed by more than one person, of course, but certainly not all of them.

So how many bears were there in Michigan during 2015? Probably 25,000 to 30,000. My estimate is most likely more accurate than the one published by the DNR, and is certainly based on more current information than the DNR’s, but there’s also one major difference between my estimate and the DNR’s. Mine includes cubs. The DNR’s doesn’t.

  The Survey

Now that I’ve got your attention, let me explain. During late fall of 2015 and the first months of 2016, I did my best to conduct a survey of Michigan residents to try to find out how many bears were seen and captured on trail cameras during 2015. The reason I decided to do this is the DNR currently estimates the state’s bear population from bear harvest data. They plug the sexes and ages of harvested bears into a computer model along with bear hunting effort to come up with a probable population that yielded the previous year’s harvest.

A year normally elapses between the end of bear season and when the statistics from that season are available. And when the numbers are available, they only enable the DNR to estimate the previous year’s possible population, so estimates are two years out of date by the time they are made. On top of that, the DNR bear estimates are only for bears that are at least a year old.

Even though cubs are bears, too, and are part of the population, the state agency makes no attempt to estimate their numbers. It’s as though cubs don’t exist as far as the DNR is concerned in terms of population numbers. Cubs are a critical part of the bear population, however, playing an essential role in determining the population’s future. If cub production and survival exceeds losses, the population increases. If they don’t, bear numbers decrease.

 Value of Trail Cameras

I thought there has got to be a better way than what the DNR currently does bear population estimates, and there is. Trail cameras are so widely used today by deer and bear hunters and many nonhunters also use the cameras. Not all bear and deer hunters use cameras to monitor their baits, of course, but many of them do. Enough hunters use trail cameras to provide some solid real time numbers. The problem is to figure out how to tap into all of that information.


Sow nursing three cub (we apologize for poor pic quality)

I’ve used trail cameras on my bear baits long enough to realize how valuable they can be to provide information about how many different bears are visiting baits. That’s what gave me the idea about trying to gather that type of information from hunters. In most cases, there are usually more bears visiting baits than hunters realize until they start looking at photos from cameras set to monitor baits. Not all photos obtained by cameras are suitable to identify individual bears, but, over time, after enough photos are accumulated at specific bait sites, it’s possible to make an accurate assessment about how many bears are or have been visiting that location. There’s usually far more bears visiting a bait than hunters end up seeing during their hunt because many of them only feed under the cover of darkness.

Two friends and I who bear hunted together during 2015 maintained six baits in Keweenaw County, for example. We only had cameras that functioned properly on four of those baits. The best bait was being visited by 12 different bears, including an adult female with three cubs. The family of four and six individual bears were seen while that bait was being hunted. One male was killed at that bait.

Another 10 bears, including a sow and two cubs, were photographed at a different bait that was not hunted as often. Only one bear was seen while that spot was being hunted and no bears were shot there.

Six bears frequented bait number three and a male was taken there. Photos of five bears were recorded at bait number four where an adult female was harvested. Multiple bears were present at two additional baits, based on the bait that was eaten and tracks, but scouting cameras placed at those baits malfunctioned and no bears were seen while those spots were hunted. Due to the lack of good information on those two baits, they were not considered in the survey.

I also hunted deer over bait in Keweenaw County during 2015, miles from the bear baits and cameras at those spots recorded photos of four more bear. I got to thinking, “If one small party of hunters has photos of 33 different bruins, the total number of bears seen statewide by the thousands of hunters who monitor baits with cameras has got to be substantial.” And I’m sure it is. The numbers may be much higher than I suspect.

Trying to Partner With DNR

I asked the DNR if they wanted to partner with me on this project, knowing that a news release from the Department would be more widely published than a news release from me. Although I’m considered a black bear expert by many people, I don’t have the public credibility as a citizen hunter/writer that the state agency does. Participation by the DNR would have increased the potential of hunters responding to the request for information.

“Thanks for giving us the opportunity to be included in your trail camera survey,” DNR deputy public information officer John Pepin from the Marquette office wrote in response. “However, at this time, we are going to decline that opportunity.”

After stating the information they now collect about black bears is adequate, Pepin concluded by writing, “We are not currently in need of a trail camera survey, which would have limited participation.”

The DNR does conduct an annual survey of bear hunters to estimate how many were successful in bagging a bear and to determine their satisfaction with the hunt. One of the questions on that survey asks hunters how satisfied they are with the number of bear they saw during their hunt, but they don’t ask how many bear were seen and/or photographed with trail cameras. Bear hunters have the option of filling out an online survey that’s on the DNR website and 2,488 did so after 2015 seasons. An additional 2,070 hunters who bought 2015 bear licenses responded to surveys mailed to them by the DNR.

The DNR was right about limited participation in my survey, but that’s not unusual for a first time survey of any type. Realistically, I knew that without the DNR’s participation getting information to most hunters about the survey would be an uphill battle and the response rate among those who heard or read about it would also be reduced. I sent news releases about the survey to as many media outlets statewide as possible.

Interestingly, the Michigan Bear Hunters Association, which I am a life member of, did not let their members know about the survey by way of their newsletter. The organization did not publish the news release.

  The Results

I ended up getting responses from 116 individuals from all over the state, some of whom are guides. People who responded to the survey saw or photographed bears in all 15 UP counties in addition to 22 counties in the Lower Peninsula. The respondents reported seeing and/or photographing 1,057 bears in Michigan during 2015.

A total of 693 lone bears that were at least a year old were reported. The information I was most interested in is the number of adult females with cubs that were seen and photographed because the DNR doesn’t collect that data. There were 110 females with cubs reported and they had a total of 259 cubs with them.

Eighteen sows had one cub. Forty-seven females had twins and 41 were with triplets. Six sows had four cubs each. Some adult female black bears in Michigan give birth to as many as five cubs every year. I’ve seen and photographed some of them and have gotten reports of others, but no females with five cubs were reported in the survey.

Among the hunters I heard from, a total of 63 bears that were seen at baits were bagged. After subtracting that number from those that were seen, the number of remaining bruins would be just under 1,000. That number is significant considering that 4,994 hunters hunted black bear in Michigan during 2015. If those 100 plus hunters I heard from are a representative sample, the total number of bears seen and/or photographed by all bear hunters would have been in the neighborhood of 43,000.

When you add in the number of bears seen and/or photographed by deer hunters and nonhunters in Michigan during 2015, it could easily surpass 50,000. And I did hear from deer hunters.

A deer hunter from Lake County wrote, “I have three deer stands in Lake County that I have so many bear visiting. I hunt with my brother and close friend. Between the three of us, we now have a total count of 15 different bear visiting. We do not sit close to each other. This is gathered within 15 square miles.”

Another deer hunter from Delta County wrote, “We had more bear on cameras this past fall than ever before. None of us had a bear license. All pictures were taken at or near deer stands. I applied for a bear tag, but was unsuccessful.”

A deer hunter from Marquette County who had photos of four adult bear commented, “Been hunting this area for five years now. First time ever even seen signs of bears. I believe the number to be a big jump up this year.”

The high number of bears reported to be visiting single baits was also reflective of lots of bears. Some of the hottest baits had 20 or more bears visiting them.

A bear hunter from Gogebic County wrote, “I know for a fact from the number of bears I’ve seen on my trail cameras that there are far more bears here than the DNR claims.” He captured photos of 18 different bears on one bait, seven of which were cubs.

One hunter reported 21 different bears on a bait in Presque Isle County. Another bait in Alcona County had 20 different bears on it. The highest number of bears reported from one bait was in Marquette County. A total of 30 bears visited that bait, including three sows with cubs. Two had twins and one had triplets.

2016 Survey

I plan on conducting a similar survey of the number of bears seen and/or photographed in Michigan for 2016. If you would like to share information about the number of bears you saw or captured photos of, please let me know. I would like to know the number of sows with cubs, including the number of cubs each had along with the number of single bears that were at least a year old and the county they were in.

This information can be emailed to For those who do not have computers, information about bears that were photographed and seen can be sent to Bear Count, 814 Clark St., Marquette, MI 49855.

The reason I’m doing this is I’m passionate about black bears and their management. I don’t think the DNR is gathering enough information about black bears in the state. With your help, I hope to add to what is known about the animals in Michigan that can contribute to better management of this species of big game.

Richard P Smith
Latest posts by Richard P Smith (see all)