Click here for season dates, zones, allowable methods, and bag limits.
Black bears were once considered to be varmints and agricultural pests, but have been regulated as a game animal in Massachusetts since 1952. Since 1970, when substantial changes were made in the hunting season and a "bear study" begun, the black bear has become prized among Massachusetts sportsmen.
The bear population has grown from about 100 in the early 1970s to about 3000 in 2005, in response to increased legal protection, changes in forest structure and composition, and increased availability of supplemental fall foods. Massachusetts hunters can now enjoy a challenging big game hunt for which they once needed to travel to the remote country of northern New England.
License and Permit
Massachusetts bear hunters need to purchase a $5.00 bear hunting permit in addition to their basic hunting or sporting license. Non-resident hunters need a non-resident "big game" license. The bear permit application form is located on the hunting license.
The season is open in Wildlife Management Zones (WMZ) 1-9. (See WMZ map.) However, the majority of the harvest comes from the area west of the Connecticut River. The season is split into 2 segments, including 17 days in September and 18 days in November. The September segment is timed to coincide with agricultural damage (particularly corn) whereas the November season is a traditional time for hunters who choose to hunt hardwoods and remote ridge tops. Most bears are taken in the September segment; however, some good-sized males have been taken in November. Check the "Abstracts" of the Fisheries and Wildlife laws for the exact season dates and regulations.
There are 4 methods by which black bears are hunted: bait, hounds, incidental hunting during other seasons, and still hunting. Baiting has been unlawful in Massachusetts since 1970 and hunting with dogs since 1996. Incidental hunting during the firearms deer season is also unlawful. The Massachusetts "shotgun" deer season is rather late-beginning after Thanksgiving-and bears may already be denned. So, bear hunters must either hunt from a stand in likely feeding areas, or slowly stalk through berry patches. Most (75-80%) of the harvest is taken by stand hunters. The number of bear hunters varies annually from 2,500 to 3,500, although actual participation and effort varies.
Pre-season scouting is important. In Massachusetts, natural food availability is more important than either hunting method or hunter participation in determining hunter success and harvests. If natural foods-acorns, beech, cherries, and the like-are scarce, bears are more likely to utilize corn fields or orchards. The bears may travel many miles to get to these preferred food sources. However, some bears will utilize corn under any circumstances. Once they have found a good food supply, the animals will typically stay nearby. When scouting, look for tracks, scat, or bedding areas. The bears may also make well-worn trails into corn fields or large berry patches. Look for claw marks or "bear nests" in beech. Some old males may be wary and avoid human food sources. These animals may hang tight in thick cover such as laurel thickets, swamps, or other dense cover. Check for bear sign around the edges of these areas.
You may want to contact dairy farmers who plant extensive fields of sileage corn. If they are suffering bear damage, they may be interested in having bear hunters on their property. Pay attention to the farmers' concerns and stay away from pastured livestock and do not allow your hunt to interfere with crop harvesting. You can also contact the MassWildlife District offices to find out what areas are having damage. However, many farmers already have an available pool of local hunters and do not bother to let the Districts know about depredations.
Hunting Tips and Requirements
Hunting hours are from ½-hour before sunrise to ½-hour after sunset (varies on some wildlife management areas). Although some bears may be active throughout the day, you will usually want to hunt on stand in early morning or later afternoon to catch bears traveling to and from feeding areas to bedding areas. Be attentive to corridors of thick cover which the bears may follow into a corn field or other feeding site. You may want to hunt from a tree stand, but be certain of your view and don't use "permanent" tree stands (see "Abstracts" ) without landowner permission.
Pay attention to the direction of the wind. Bears have a keen sense of smell and will quickly pick up on your presence. Place yourself downwind when hunting and, if possible, come into your stand from a direction different from that used by the bears. Do not smoke and be quiet and alert! The bears blend in with the background very well, especially in early morning and evening. You can easily fail to see the bear if it crosses from woods to corn when you are dozing or looking the other way. Bears can move very quietly when they want to and you may not hear the animal coming. If you are alert and vigilant you have a better chance of scoring. You must be particularly alert when hunting bears by stalking through food patches. Be very attentive to the possible presence of another hunter coming from a different direction.
Before the hunt, check over your equipment, especially your firearm or archery equipment. Sight in your firearm before the hunt. Lawful firearms include centerfire rifles .23 caliber or larger, certain high-powered handguns (see "Plain Language" regulations) and archery tackle similar to that used for deer. Shotguns with rifled slugs are not lawful, as state law restricts slugs and buckshot to the deer season. Most bears are taken with rifles, typically a .30-06. Some archery deer hunters secure a bear permit in case they see a bear while on deer stand but remember that firearms are prohibited while archery hunting for deer. Hunt safely! and be certain of your target and the background before shooting. There may be other hunters or farm workers around your chosen spot.
When you have taken a bear, you must bring the entire animal (it may be field-dressed) to an official checking station within 48 hours of the kill. The current check stations will be listed on your hunting permit. At the check station, the biologist will record certain information, weigh the bear, and remove a tooth for aging. You can ask to be informed of the animal's age. You will be notified when teeth are returned from the aging laboratory early the following spring.
Since Massachusetts is the third most densely populated state in the country, many people are surprised to hear that the state's black bear population is healthy and growing. As currently regulated, hunting takes about 5 to 7% of the estimated population and bear numbers continue to grow at a moderate rate. Habitat changes and human attitudes are key to retaining the bear as a part of the Massachusetts fauna. Sportsmen play an important role in the conservation and management of this magnificent denizen of the forest.