Bruin Destinations : Massachusetts

Massachusetts Bay State Bruins

             Massachusetts is the fifth most densely populated state in the country, so it might be surprising to learn the commonwealth has a sizable black bear population. Recent and ongoing research by MassWildlife indicates bear numbers are increasing and bears continue to expand their range to some of the more populated central and eastern regions of the state. Bears are known to be present and breeding in Worcester and Middlesex Counties and perhaps Essex County in the northeast, and wandering males and some breeding age females have been reported east of Route 495. As a result hunting seasons have been expanded and more Wildlife Management Zones have been opened to bear hunting, providing hunters with more opportunities.

            But it wasn’t always this way, at least not in modern times. Following the Second World War, just a few hundred bears roamed the Berkshires along the western border with New York, supported by an unknown number of occasional transients from neighboring New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York that border Massachusetts to the north and west, respectively. Due to fledging numbers the first regulated bear season wasn’t initiated until 1952. A total of three bears were killed in 1975 by permit holders. Along with reducing the hunting season to six days, a one bear per calendar year was put in place in 1970. Ten bears were killed in 1981, a record number at that time. As bear numbers continued to increase, reaching an estimated 1,500 in the 1990s and 3,500 by 2005, the split hunting season in September and November in the western and central regions of the state had gradually increased to 35 days by 2006. A total of 148 bears were killed that year, the second highest since a record harvest of 153 in 2003. In 2014, the bear take surpassed 200 for the first time and has exceeded 200 bears annually every year since reaching a record high of 325 in 2020. In 2022, the statewide total was 223. 

            In 2015, biologists with the Massachusetts Division of Wildlife estimated Massachusetts was home to 4,000 to 4,500 bears. That statewide population estimate has not changed, but with human/bear conflicts on the rise and more bears being observed in the eastern portions of the state, regulation changes were in order. Starting that fall eastern Wildlife Management Zones were opened, allowing bear hunting statewide for the first time. The hunting of bears was also allowed during the late November-early December shotgun deer season, giving hunters three seasonal opportunities to bear hunt.           

While the entire state is now open to the hunting of bears, traditionally the western counties have been the leaders in the bear take. Typically, Berkshire County in the far west tops the list, followed by Franklin County along the southern border with Vermont, Hampshire County to the south, and Hampden County bordering northern Connecticut. Worcester County smack in the middle of the state typically comes in a distant fourth. The primary reasons are that the western counties offer the best bear habitats and are the least densely populated. Much of the terrain consists of rolling hills, swamps, and the largest tracts of woodland in the state. More than thirty state forests are found west of the Connecticut River. October Mountain State Forest in Lee—the largest in Massachusetts—covers some 16,500 acres, the Tolland State Forest in Otis is 15,000 acres, and the Beartown State Forest in Monterey another 12,000 acres, to name but a few.

             But, there are plenty of places to hunt east of the Connecticut River, too. In all, the Massachusetts Division of Parks and Recreation manages over 285,000 acres and the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife another 140,000 acres, mostly in the form of wildlife management areas. Many of these are located in the central and eastern regions where bear numbers are increasing.

            There are also other factors that make the western and central counties such bear hotspots. There are over 7,700 farms in Massachusetts; a good number of them are growing agricultural crops that are attractive to bears. These farms cover more than 520,000 acres and a good share are in these counties. Franklin County has over 780 farms covering more than 90,000 acres, Hampshire County some 800 farms covering nearly 55,000 acres, Hampden over 580 covering almost 40,000 acres, and Berkshire County is home to more than 500 farms covering more than 60,000. In the central region, Worcester County has over 1,500 farms covering more than 100,000 acres. While many of these farms are small, they are a magnet to bears during years when natural hard and soft mast supplies are low. Hunters gaining access to these areas often find some of the best hunting opportunities in the state.    



Estimated Populations: 4,000-4,500+/-

Bag Limit: One bear per calendar year

Areas Open: Open statewide  

Spring Season: No

Fall Season: Yes-First Season: September 5-23, 2023. No blaze orange required.

Second Season: November 6-November 25, 2023. Blaze orange hat required on WMAs during pheasant and quail season.

Shotgun Season: November 27-December 9, 2023. 500 square inches of blaze orange required on head, chest, and back. These dates coincide with the shotgun deer season. Special rules apply. Check MassWildlife website.


Baiting Allowed: No

Dogs Allowed: No

Popular Hunting Methods: Spot and stalk and hunting near natural food and agricultural sources

License Availability/Licenses: Permits Required-Online, vendors statewide, and at MassWildlife offices

Resident Hunters: Hunting or Sporting License and Bear Permit

Non-resident Hunters: Big Game License and Bear Permit. Check with MassWildlife for the current fee structure.

Legal Weapons:

First Season - Rifles
  • .23 cal. or larger**
  • Handguns-.357 mag and larger
  • Muzzleloaders-.44 to .775 cal.**
  • Archery-min draw 40 lbs. @ 28” draw
Second Season - Rifles, muzzleloaders, & archery gear
Shotgun Season - Shotguns, 10 gauge & larger, slugs only


Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife/1-(508)389-6300/