Archived Outdoors

With a little help from hunters, wildlife officials hope to curb the exploding bear population in the mountains

out frNorth Carolina has a bear problem, and wildlife officials hope hunters can help.

The population of black bears has been on the rise for decades — it’s more than doubled in the past 20 years alone — and needs to be reined in, according to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. The obvious solution is getting hunters to hunt more of them. The trick, however, is getting the formula right.

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“We don’t want to overstep and send our bear population in the other direction. We just want to stabilize it,” said Mike Carraway, the lead wildlife commission biologist for the mountains who’s based in Haywood County.

The increase in black bears over the last several decades is largely due to more restrictive hunting laws designed to curb over-hunting and restore the species to a robust and stable population.

Hunters can only shoot one bear a year, and once they have, they’re supposed to hang up their guns until the next season.

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The wildlife commission has talked about increasing the bag limit to two bears a year, but has been hesitant to pull the trigger.

“We do need to harvest more bears but certainly not too many bears to the point it affects the populations,” said Kate Pipkin, rules biologist with the wildlife commission.

“It is a serious step if you consider doubling the bag limit from one to two,” Carraway said.

Would hunters get twice as many bears? Or are bears so hard to get that allowing hunters to shoot a second wouldn’t really matter much because few would succeed?

“If you are unable to take bear number one, you aren’t going to be able to take bear number two anyway,” Pipkin said.

But they had no way to figure that out.

“We don’t know how many people are hunting bears,” Pipkin said. “Because we didn’t know who our bear hunters were, we couldn’t figure out our hunter effort.”

Wildlife biologists realized they needed better data before upping the bag limit. So starting last year, bear hunters are required to get a special bear stamp in addition to their big game hunting license.

“Without a special stamp it is very difficult to identify the segment of the total hunting population that are bear hunters,” Carraway said. 

The bear stamp costs $10 a year, with the money going to black bear research and management.

Biologists will be able to compare the number of bear hunters on the ground with the number who are actually getting a bear, and better predict the potential impact of increasing the bag limit.

They will also have a database of bear hunters for conducting surveys.

Still, there are variables that could be impossible to get at.

“Some dog hunters may run 10 bears during a week and be very selective and only kill one,” Carraway said, especially if they just enjoy the sport of running their dogs or are holding out for a bigger bear.

Meanwhile, an estimated 300 bears are shot illegally every year without being reported.

It’s hard to dissect any one variable that could cause the number of bears shot by hunters to fluctuate from year to year. Ecological reasons can come into play, too. This past year, there was a big acorn crop, and hunters shot fewer bears.

“The bears had so much food to eat they weren’t moving as much so they were more difficult to hunt,” Carraway said.

But female bears had bigger litters of cubs, thanks to plenty of calories going into hibernation last winter, so by bear season next year, the bumper crop of cubs will be old enough to hunt, and there will be more bears in the woods, potentially leading to bigger harvests.


A place of their own

Stabilizing the growing bear population simply by encouraging more hunting could prove “a very difficult proposition,” Carraway said.

That’s because a quarter of the bear population in the mountains is in areas where hunting isn’t allowed.

There’s an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 bears on huntable lands in the mountains, including national forests, private land and game preserves.

But there are another 2,000 bears in WNC on land that can’t be hunted — including national parks, bear sanctuaries and in city limits where there’s no hunting.

The wildlife commission has toyed with the idea of opening up certain bear sanctuaries to hunting. Two mountain bear sanctuaries began allowing limited hunting by special permit a few years ago. But doing so was controversial — even among the hunting community itself. 

Carraway remembers the day when there weren’t nearly as many bears in the mountains as there now.

The black bear population had dwindled so much by the mid-1970s, hunters were reporting a harvest of only 60 bears a year in the mountains. Compare that to nearly 1,200 two years ago. 

A major turning point for the bear population came in the 1970s: the advent of bear sanctuaries. They not only created islands of safe harbor where the bears could rebound free of hunting pressures, but the notion of sanctuaries ushered in a new philosophy of ownership among hunters, one where they saw themselves as the stewards and caretakers.

“It was a struggle to get them to accept the idea of having bears in a sanctuary they couldn’t hunt. That was a radical change in philosophy,” Carraway said. “Now the older bear hunters are very protective of the bear sanctuaries. The older hunters remember the days when there weren’t hardly any bears. Once they saw that it worked, the older bear hunters are very protective of them.”

There’s more than a dozen designated bear sanctuaries on public lands in the mountains, encompassing around 250,000 acres, and another half million acres off limits to hunting as national parks, state parks and the like.

It’s not only illegal to hunt in bear sanctuaries, but it’s socially frowned upon in bear hunting circles.

For some species, evolving attitudes came along too late. Buffalo, elk, wolves and panthers are all among the big game species that roamed the North Carolina mountains centuries ago, before being completely eradicated from this region by the fur trade and early settlers.

Luckily, the same hasn’t been true for black bears.

“Our regulations have worked to produce a sustainable and persistent bear population,” said Kate Pipkin, a rules biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Commission.

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