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Michigan Bear Hunting Stamps

The Michigan bear stamps that were issued from 1959 through 1963 have always been popular with collectors. The stamps from this classic period are jumbo-sized pictorials and each features a large illustration of a bear or a bear being chased by hunting dogs. The stamps are similar to the wildly popular Michigan Cisco Netting stamps that were issued from 1963 through 1968.

Unused remainders of the bear stamps were given away by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in an office cleaning procedure in the early 1980s. For this reason, there are ample unused examples to go around. Finding examples used on license presents much more of a challenge.

Lesser known but avidly sought by advanced collectors are the semi pictorial Michigan bear stamps issued from 1981 through 1989. Different stamps were issued for resident and non resident hunters during this time. Since most collectors were unaware of the stamps and no remainders were sold or given away – the opposite is true with regard to difficulty of acquisition. Unused stamps are rarely encountered while used examples frequently turn up on licenses.


The Michigan Black Bear

World wide there are only eight different species of bears and three of these are found in North America: black bears; brown bears and polar bears (Grizzly bears and Kodiak bears are types of brown bears). Black bears are found scattered throughout North America and have been reported in at least 35 states and all of the Canadian provinces. The black bear is the only species found in Michigan.

In Michigan, black bears are common in the Upper Peninsula (UP) and areas of the Northern Lower Peninsula (NPR). In recent years, bears have been more frequently seen in the Southern Lower Peninsula (SLP). In the Upper Great Lakes Region, most black bears have black or extremely dark Brown fur (see Figure 1). Black bears that are found in the western U.S. and Canada can be brown, cinnamon, grayish-blue and even blonde in coloration.



Figure 1. A Michigan black bear.



The average size for an adult black bear (standing on all four legs) is just under three feet tall at the shoulder and three to five feet in length. Males are larger than females and adults weigh 130 to 500 pounds. Females weigh 90 to 300 pounds. All bears gain weight in the fall and lose weight during their period of winter inactivity. Upon emerging from their dens in the spring, they have typically lost a third of their body weight.

Black bears are most frequently found in large, heavily forested areas. In Michigan, however, they can be found in much more diverse kinds of habitats, including deciduous lowland forests, coniferous forest swamps and grassy open areas within forests. Black bears are omnivores and are opportunistic feeders of both plants and animals.



Bear Hunting and Licensing

Black bears are an important natural resource for inhabitants of Michigan and were first hunted by Native Americans and then by early trappers and settlers. Michigan began issuing residents a license to hunt deer starting in 1895 (see Figure 2) and traditionally bears were treated like a bonus for those possessing a deer license. Sport hunting of black bears was first regulated in 1925 when the Michigan legislature declared the species a game animal. Prior to 1925 bears were completely unprotected and could be killed at any time and by any means. Even after 1925, enforcement was generally lax and many counties had no closed seasons.



Figure 2. 1895 Michigan License to Hunt Deer. Note this license retains two of the original five deer shipping coupons.




In 1928, the Game Division was established within the Department of Conservation and effective game management became a priority. Bear hunting privileges were officially included in the Michigan deer hunting license starting in 1928 (one bear per season). Also starting in 1928, Michigan began issuing their hunting and fishing licenses in the form of celluloid covered pin-back buttons. Separate license buttons were issued to resident and non resident hunters and fishermen for four consecutive years, after which time they were discontinued. Included among the different types of buttons was the deer license (see Figure 3).



Figure 3. 1929 Michigan non resident deer license issued in the form of a button. This license conveyed the right to harvest one bear.



Using bait to hunt bears has always been legal in Michigan and hunting bears with dogs became legal in 1939.  In hound hunting, bears are pursued by dogs and harvested after being treed or while passing another hunter. In many places where it is permitted, hound hunting has become a strong part of the bear hunting culture. It should be noted that hound hunting is controversial and not everyone agrees with it.

Michigan bear cubs were first protected in 1948 and in 1952 the legislature granted the Michigan Natural Resources Commission (NRC) the authority to regulate bear hunting as they deemed appropriate to ensure the black bear population stay in equilibrium.

At this time bear trapping was made illegal without first obtaining a special permit. In general, bear hunting seasons coincided with deer hunting seasons through 1952. The first and only spring bear season (April 1- May 31) was held in 1953. Starting in 1955, there were special early fall bear seasons in the UP and NPR. It was during the early bear seasons that dogs were permitted to be used. During the deer hunting seasons (which took place later in the fall) dogs were not permitted. Bear hunting was very popular in Michigan during the 1950s with a high of 1,964 bears harvested in the early and regular seasons of 1958 (see Figure 4).



Figure 4. Michigan hunters standing in front of a bear strapped onto the back of a vehicle, circa 1950s.



Pictorial Stamps Issued

The first dedicated bear license was issued in the form of a stamp in 1959. However, only small game license holders who were interested in hunting bear during the early bear seasons were required to purchase and affix the stamp to their license. From 1959 through 1963 – during the time the stamps were issued – firearm deer license holders were not required to posses a bear stamp to harvest bear during the deer seasons. This is one of the primary reasons why the stamps are difficult for collectors to acquire used on a license. The majority of bears continued to be harvested by hunters during the deer seasons.

The 1959-1961 Michigan Bear stamps were issued in panes of five, one across and five down (1 x 5). The stamps had a large blank perforated selvage area to the left of each stamp which pioneer fish and game collector E.L. Vanderford has stated “had no functional purpose”. However, I believe that in some instances it may have served as an accounting tab. The 1959 and 1960 issues were printed with a smaller (5-6 mm) perforated selvage across the top, right side and bottom of the panes (see Figure 5).



Figure 5. 1959 Michigan bear stamp. The large large perforated selvage at the left may have served as an accounting tab.



The 1961 issue featured a very large selvage across the top of the pane and stamps from the top position often command a large premium because it is so different and cool looking (see Figure 6).



Figure 6. 1961 Michigan bear stamp with a huge selvage across the top.



The 1962 stamps were printed in vertical panes (1 x 5) with the smaller sized selvage on all four sides of the pane and a slightly narrower perforated selvage between the stamps, similar to the Michigan Cisco Netting stamps which were issued from 1963-1967 (see Figure 7). It is known that the same company, Allied Printing of Lansing, contracted with the Conservation Department to produce both the 1962 and 1963 bear and the 1963 Cisco Netting stamps.



Figure 7. 1963 Michigan Cisco Netting stamp. Note the Allied Printing imprint in the bottom selvage.



On the vertical panes of five, the 1962 bear stamps were turned on their sides. In 1962 Vanderford purchased stamp #1 from the conservation department (see Figure 8).



Figure 8. In 1962 E. L. Vanderford purchased bear stamp #1. The selvage surrounding the stamp is similar to the Cisco Netting stamp above.



The format for the 1963 bear stamps was identical to 1962 except that the selvage between the stamps was narrower yet, more like the 1968 Cisco Netting stamps (see Figures 9, 10  and 17).



Figure 9. 1963 Michigan bear stamp. Allied Printing imprint in the bottom selvage.



Figure 10. 1968 Michigan Cisco Netting complete pane showing the narrow perforated selvage between the stamps – identical to the 1963 bear stamp.



As explained previously, Michigan bear stamps from the classic period are difficult to acquire on license. For many years I was happy with just a couple of different examples in my collection. I felt very fortunate one day when an advanced Michigan collector called and told me that he had decided to sell me a complete set that were all issued to the same hunter, Edward Alashaian. In addition, he also had two unused metal bear tags, one from 1960 and one from 1962, that matched the serial numbers on the stamps (see Figures 11-17).



Figure 11. 1959 Michigan bear stamp affixed to the reverse of a small game license. Issued to Edward Alashaian.



Figure 12. 1960 Michigan bear stamp affixed to the reverse of a small game license.

Figure 13. Unused 1960 Michigan metal bear tag. Note the tag number, 3299, matches the serial number of the stamp above.



Figure 14. 1961 Michigan bear stamp affixed to reverse of a small game license.



Figure 15. 1962 Michigan bear stamp affixed to reverse of a small game license.

Figure 16. Unused 1962 Michigan metal bear tag with matching number to the stamp above.



Figure 17. 1963 Michigan bear stamp affixed to reverse of small game license.



I was not able to find very much information on Edward Alashaian. He was born in 1926 and enlisted in the army in 1946 (at age 20) where he served as a photographer after the end of WW2. After getting discharged, he studied english literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The address on the obverse of each license issued to him from 1959 through 1963 listed Ann Arbor as his place of residence. Obviously Edward was a serious hunter. He passed away in 1993.

After 1963 the bear stamps were discontinued and a paper bear license was required of all bear hunters in 1964 and 1965. Bear hunting was banned in the Lower Peninsula (only) for four years (1964-1968) to allow populations to increase. Between 1966 and 1979, bears were allowed to be harvested by hunters with only a deer license. In 1976 a new law required that bear hunting dogs be registered with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. A special nine day archery bear hunting season was added in 1977.


Semi Pictorial Stamps Issued

Starting in 1980 a specific bear hunting license was once again required and from 1981 through 1989 the license was issued in the form of a stamp. The stamps were semi pictorial die cut self adhesives and were printed in sheets of unknown size. The stamps featured printed text superimposed over the “STATE OF MICHIGAN DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES” insignia. Separate stamps were printed for residents and non residents.

There were minor variations in the bear stamps throughout the decade: the 1981 stamps were printed on what appears to be a matte Fasson™ CRACK’N PEEL Plus paper; the 1982 stamps were printed on an Avery backing paper; in 1985 Michigan again contracted with Fasson. Also, the text was shifted upward to make room for a month and day issued line on the stamps; in 1986 no fee was printed on the stamps and in 1987 the resident and non resident bear hunting fees were raised by about 50 percent (see Figures 18-22).



Figure 18. 1981 Michigan bear stamps. Printed on Fasson paper.



Figure 19. 1982 Michigan bear stamps. Printed on Avery paper.



Figure 20. 1985 Michigan bear stamps. Note a line has been added for the month and day of issue.



Figure 21. 1986 Michigan bear stamps. Note the fee has been omitted.



Figure 22. 1987 Michigan bear stamps. Note the significant fee increase over a two year period.



Michigan issued a wide variety of semi pictorial hunting and fishing license stamps in a similar format throughout the 1980s. The peel and stick stamps were intended to be affixed to the front or back of a license stamp holder or passbook (see Figures 23 and 24). These interesting stamps are avidly sought by advanced collectors.



Figure 23. 1989 Michigan passbook, obverse. The passbook served as a license stamp holder.



Figure 24. Reverse of the 1989 Michigan passbook above with four different resident stamps affixed, including one to hunt bear at the upper right of the group.



In 1981 only, a resident sportsman license stamp also conveyed the right to hunt bear (one bear per person, see Figure 25). Starting in 1982, the bear hunting right was removed from the sportsman license stamp although the stamps themselves continued to be issued through 1989.



Figure 25. In 1981 the Michigan resident sportsman license stamp also conveyed the right to harvest one bear.



The semi pictorial bear hunting stamps were discontinued after 1989 and bear hunting was placed under a zone and quota system that is still in use today. Briefly, the zone and quota system was established to regulate the bear harvest and limit the number of hunters in specific areas.

The three or four previous bear regions were divided into 11 smaller zones called Bear Management Units (BMUs). The BMUs were designed to distribute hunters and the bear harvest more evenly throughout the bear habitats in the state – and prevent hunters from targeting bears in certain areas (see Figure 26).



Figure 26. Map of Michigan Bear Management Units.



Because of increasing demand for hunting opportunities, in 1990 a quota system was established to limit the number of bear hunters and influence the distribution of hunters in the different BMUs. According to a DNR press release:


“Under the quota system, the number of hunters participating in each unit and hunt period is limited by the number of licenses issued to achieve a desired bear harvest but still maintain a high level of recreational opportunity.” 


Pictorial Bear Stamp Remainders Given Away

In the early 1980s, after the Department of Natural Resources made the decision to change over to self adhesive stamps, another more infamous decision was made. For decades, going back to their first fish and game (trout) stamp issued in 1948, the department had kept all of their unused stamp remainders in boxes stored in their Lansing headquarters offices. It was decided to finally dispose of them.

The way they went about this is hard to believe today and makes for a good story. For two weeks, all of the boxes of stamps were put on a counter inside one of the offices and DNR employees were told they could take whatever they wanted. When the two week period was over, the boxes were put outside the office – in the lobby. Anyone walking through could help themselves.

What and how many stamps were in those boxes? Most of the stamps Michigan had issued prior to 1981 in varying quantities from as few as twenty to well over a thousand of each. None of the Cisco Netting stamps were in the boxes aside from the first one. I have been tracking them for over 35 years now and I estimate that there were 125-150 remainders of the black Cisco stamp that were given away for free. I have bought and sold close to 100 of these over the years.

All of the bear stamps were present in much greater quantities than the 1963 Cisco stamp. In the 1980s I was offered many sets of complete panes and much larger quantities of panes of some of them. You see, that is the strangest thing about this story. When the boxes started out inside the office, employees took random handfuls of stuff (stamps) for mementos or for their kids or for whatever reason. When the boxes got outside the office, an untold number of non-employees did the same thing.

Some of the stamps made their way into the collector market; some got thrown away and some may still be sitting in boxes or drawers somewhere. That is why some of the early Michigan fish and game stamps are scarce to rare while others are around in huge quantities today. It all goes back to who took what and how many and, most importantly, what did they do with them afterwords… if anything.


I hope you enjoyed this post and look forward to hearing from anyone with additional questions about these fascinating stamps. For the most current information (2016) on Michigan bear management, I would refer you to the following link.


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