Both sides urged caution over the new bear hunting laws that might undermine the success of the species in the state. In a few short decades, black bears went from being a blip on the map to a staple creature on the North Carolina landscape.
At 78 years old, Waynesville resident Wallace Messer said he remembers times when it was nearly impossible to find a bear in Western North Carolina. As an active member in the North Carolina Bear Hunters Association, he doesn’t want to see the species nearly disappear like it did in the 1960s. He spoke in opposition of any changes that could reduce the bear population.
“Just because we got the bear population we got, we don’t want to go gung ho and kill everything,” Messer said.
What changes might ultimately be made, if any, are still under consideration. But, the agency does have an idea of what revamped hunting laws might entail and what they might accomplish. The commission recently unveiled a 10-year bear management plan. It calls for halting further growth in the state’s bear population.
The bear population in North Carolina has ballooned since the 1980s — from less than 2,000 to as many as 18,000 — and continues to grow by about 6 percent, each year.
Meanwhile, humans are gobbling up more and more of the state’s countryside with expanding cityscapes and rural home construction, encroaching on the black bear habitat. The result is that more bears are being killed by vehicles and more bears are wandering into backyards and neighborhoods.
The converging narratives have prompted the commission to look at ways to curtail growing bear numbers.
“Our objective is to stabilize the bear population, to flatten the growth,” said biologist David Cobb, chief of the commission’s Division of Wildlife Management. “In my estimating, North Carolina has the most robust bear population of any southeastern state.”
To stop the bear population from growing, between 350 and 650 additional bears would need to be hunted and shot each year in Western North Carolina.
So extending the 54-day hunting season and increasing the number of bears hunters can kill might be in order.
However, Bill Lea, a famous wildlife photographer based in Franklin, said he disagrees with that plan. The perceived increase in bears has more to do with their habitat being fragmented, which is in turn elevating the number of bear and human run-ins, he said.
“I oppose extending the bear hunting season and I oppose changing the bag limits,” he said. “We have more problems because there are more people moving into black bear territory.”
The wildlife commission is undertaking a multi-year study in the Asheville area to track bears around the urban setting and better understand bear behavior in and around cities.
The bear population is split about 60-40, respectively, between the coastal plain and the mountains. However, the range of the black bear has been fanning out into the central portion of North Carolina, where the state’s major population centers reside.
The commission is considering adding a bear-hunting season for the Piedmont, which currently doesn’t have one.
The commission is also looking at changing is its restrictions on bear baiting — the act of setting food out to attract bears. The standing rules allow hunters with dogs to use bait piles to find a bear’s scent, and then use that scent trail to pursue the bear.
Still hunters — those hunting without dogs — are not allowed to shoot bears near a bait pile or use bait piles to hunt. The contradictory regulation supposedly gives an advantage to the houndsmen that the hunter without dogs does not have.
“They smell better than I can, they hunt better than I can,” Buncombe County resident Keith Hammond said of his bear dogs. “I think we need to level the playing field for still hunters.”
Though he didn’t go as far as to say he’d like to be able to shoot bears eating at a bait pile — a measure being considered by the wildlife commission — he said still hunters should be given some sort of other advantage such as certain access to bear sanctuaries.
Other hunters at last week’s meeting worried that relaxing the rules around bait would favor commercial driven bear hunting in the state, giving the advantage to operations with large amounts of land and resources to use food to attract bears.
With the conclusion of the meeting, said Cobb, the commission will take the input it has gotten and begin hashing out rule changes to propose. Those will be brought back to the public for another round of meetings in January and then voted on by the wildlife commissioners.
“We’re talking about all these different topics, but we don’t have specific rule proposals yet,” Cobb said.
He acknowledged that many hunters are wary that changes could go too far and hurt the bear population. Small changes in the hunting’s laws can have real consequences years down the road, and possibly reverse years of success for the black bear.
“Their perspective is one of conservatism,” Cobb said. “Nobody wants to do anything that would make the bear population go down.”
By the numbers
• The black bear population in North Carolina has grown from an estimated 5,000 in 1980 to 18,000 today, rebounding after decades of over-hunting to a robust population over 60 percent of the state geographically.
• Conflicts between people and bears have increased from about 50 in 1980 to more than 500 a year.
• The number of bears killed by hunters have gone from around 200 in 1980 to 2,800 statewide now.
The N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission is considering more liberal hunting laws for black bears given the species’ success. Here are some of the new regulations being considered:
• Increase the number of bears a hunter can shoot in a season. The bag limit is now capped at one bear per hunter per season in the mountains.
• Increase the length of bear hunting season. In the mountains currently, bear hunting season runs from Oct. 14 to Nov. 23 and Dec. 16 to Jan. 1.
• Allow bear hunting in areas where natural food has been put out to feed or attract bears.
• Allow bear hunting in the Piedmont region of the state. Now, bear hunting is only allowed in the mountains and coastal plain.
• A new rule already in place: bear hunters must pay $10 every year for a bear hunting stamp, with revenue put toward black bear research.