Balance of bear country: Wildlife Commission takes input on future of WNC bear sanctuaries
Nearly 40 people weighed in on a controversial proposal to allow bear hunting in three mountain sanctuary areas during a Jan. 20 virtual public hearing before the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
Of the 38 speakers, 32 were opposed while six spoke in favor of the measure , which would allow the Wildlife Commission to issue a limited number of hunting permits in the Panthertown-Bonas Defeat, Pisgah and Standing Indian Bear Sanctuaries within the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests.
Proponents of the proposal said that well-managed hunting ultimately benefits wildlife populations and that reducing population density in the nucleus of bear country will reduce the animals’ need to disperse into human habitats that could prove dangerous for them. There are too many bears, the proposal’s supporters said, and they’re causing real issues when they cross paths with humans. Besides, they argued, the sanctuaries are already open to hunting for other game species — why not bear, too?
Meanwhile, the rule’s opponents repeatedly said that human actions, not bear populations, are at the root of human-bear conflict and that education, not hunting, is the solution. Sanctuaries should remain safe places for bears to live their lives, they said, and those areas are important for people too — multiple commenters said that they avoid bear dogs during the hunting season by hiking in sanctuaries. Speakers also took aim at the 2005 public opinion survey that the Wildlife Commission used to support its recommendation, saying that the 16-year-old survey is irrelevant to today’s decision-making.
A wildlife success story
The bear hunting proposal caused such a swell of opinion ahead of the public hearing that Colleen Olfenbuttel, the agency’s black bear and furbearer biologist, put together a special presentation explaining how the Commission arrived at its proposal.
Back in the 1970s, she said, black bears were rare in North Carolina, with fewer than 1,000 remaining in the 25-county mountain bear management unit. But then the state got serious about conservation, in 1971 establishing 28 black bear sanctuaries across the state totaling more than 800,000 acres. The goal was to protect a breeding nucleus of female bears, allowing the population to grow. Currently 17 sanctuaries covering 490,000 acres remain in North Carolina.
The efforts worked. By 2005, the mountain region was home to an estimated 4,400 bears, a 340% increase from the low point in the 1960s.
“Bears are back to the entirety of their range in Western North Carolina, and we’re starting see bears expand their range into the piedmont region,” Olfenbuttel said. “We’ve also restored bears in eastern North Carolina. Bears are a wildlife success story.”
The Wildlife Commission shifted its focus from restoring the population to managing it, launching a planning process that culminated with the 2012 approval of a plan to manage black bears in North Carolina through 2022. That process included a survey, completed in 2005, asking the public how they wanted to see the bear population managed.
“At that time, the vast majority of the public not only supported regulated hunting as a bear population management tool, but a majority preferred the bear population remain at the current level,” she said.
Regulated hunting efforts helped reduce the population’s growth rate but did not curtail it — the mountain black bear population is still growing at an annual rate of 5-6%, down from 15% in 2005. As a result, the estimated black bear population has almost doubled in size from 2005, with the current estimate between 7,000 and 8,000.
“One reason we have not been able to stabilize the bear population is that non-huntable areas in the mountains are increasing, largely due to development,” said Olfenbuttel.
Research shows that sanctuaries, where bear hunting is currently prohibited, contain high densities of the animals. In 2018, the U.S. Forest Service asked that hunting on the sanctuary lands in question be allowed as part of an “integrated approach” to bear management that would also include BearW ise education and food storage regulations. Permit hunts are highly regulated, Olfenbuttel said, and controlled independently of general bear hunting. The number of permits available can be changed based on current bear population data.
The three proposed sanctuaries would join two others where hunting permits are currently offered — the Daniel Boone Bear Sanctuary and the Mt. Mitchell Bear Sanctuary, both in the Pisgah National Forest.
The case for hunting
Mike Wilkins was the district ranger for the Nantahala Ranger District of the Nantahala National Forest in 2018, when the request for permit hunting on sanctuary lands was made. Since retired, he took to public comment to explain the reasons behind that request.
“Panthertown Valley is overpopulated with bear,” he said. “Bears have become very aggressive due to the lack of hunting.”
Around 2014, Wilkins began taking calls about bears stealing backpacks and ripping tents with no fear of people, and as the years went on the issue mounted. Though Friends of Panthertown Executive Director Jason Kimenker told The Smoky Mountain News that 2021 was a quiet year for bear activity due to increased education and food storage effort, during Wilkins’ last full season on the job, nuisance bear reports were coming in every couple weeks, all season long.
“The data shows it should be open to hunting, and it’s sort of a waste of taxpayer funds to still enforce a law that’s no longer needed,” Wilkins said.
The bear population is recovered now, and in the long run allowing hunting on sanctuary lands will keep the population healthier than if remained off-limits, said Michael Hummel.
“Hunting in the North American model for conservation has long demonstrated that when executed properly, it’s overwhelmingly to the benefit of the game species, nearly in perpetuity,” he said. “If bears are permitted to be harvested in the interior at the center of their populations, that’s going to create less competition for the bears.”
That, in turn, will reduce their incentive to disperse into developed areas.
“You simply won’t see them getting hit by cars on I-40 if there’s less competition at the center of their ranges,” Hummel said.
“I agree with many of the people who said that we need education,” added Leonard Rex, who said he has been a hunting instructor for two decades. “Quite apparently, many people need some education regarding hunting, because they really do not understand its legal use and its benefits.”
‘Asking for safety issues’
The vast majority of commenters opposed the proposal, the most common refrain being that misconduct from humans — not bears — is the real issue, and that the solution lies not in killing bears, but in educating people.
“I have been a bear photographer for over a dozen years. I have never had any opposition from a bear,” said Joann D’Eramo. “I feel that the issue that you have is the people interacting with them. The people need to be educated.”
Several comments focused specifically on the Panthertown bear sanctuary, which overlays the popular Panthertown Backcountry Recreation Area near Cashiers, and argued that allowing bear hunting with dogs on that land would cause safety issues and take away cherished recreational opportunities from non-hunters.
“We’re well aware that there’s thousands and thousands of acres of public land open to hunting,” said John Beaudet, who described himself as a “professional volunteer” on trail maintenance crews and is president and founder of the East Tennessee Trail Association. “These sanctuaries are where we go during bear season to get away from the hunting.”
“The use of dogs to hunt bears in Panthertown will create a much bigger issue in terms of safety,” added Finley Frasier. “You have a lot of people that recreate in the Panthertown Forest. It lies between Lake Toxaway and Cashiers, North Carolina. As you know those are both heavy tourist areas. There are tons of hikers in that area all throughout the year, so allowing use of dogs to chase bears into areas with humans is asking for safety issues.”
Various commenters offered alternative solutions to the bear issues prompting the recommendation. One person asked the Wildlife Commission to install bear cables at campsites in the affected areas, while another requested that proceeds from bear hunting be used to acquire property for wildlife corridors between game lands and to “secure the trash and keep people from being idiots.” Another suggested that the Wildlife Commission inject female bears with contraceptives to reduce population growth.
Those opposed to the proposal also took aim at Olfenbuttel’s use of the 2005 survey to justify the change.
“The data is stale,” said animal law attorney Heidi Mehaffey. “A 2005 survey for approval of hunting does not reflect the current population and idea about whether or not this is appropriate or ethical.”
Several people also questioned whether bear encounters are as much of a problem as the Wildlife Commission claims. Anita Gifford, a who lives along the western edge of Panthertown and frequently rides horses and hikes in the backcountry, said she had not seen a bear while out on the trails in her 20 years living in the area.
“Since 2005 it’s been much easier to record observations through the use of cell phones and internet,” said Frasier. “I think you need to dig into that data and actually see what is a harmful encounter, not an observation.”
Under the clock
Prior to the pandemic, the Wildlife Commission held an annual public hearing on proposed regulation changes in each of the state’s nine wildlife management districts.
But both this year and last, the series of in-person hearings was swapped for a single, virtual hearing with a hard time limit of two hours. The ticking clock made it impossible for everybody wishing to comment to have their voice heard in the two-hour timeframe offered Jan. 20, especially since the bear sanctuary proposal wasn’t the only controversial measure proposed for 2022-23.
The proposed regulations also included rules that would ban or regulate the sale and possession of various reptile and amphibian species, spurring passionate opposition from speaker after speaker during the portion of the agenda devoted to wildlife management rules. But after half an hour of input, the moderator told attendees that due to time constraints they would be moving on to the next group of proposed regulations. That decision prompted one man to call in during the game lands portion of the meeting, which included the bear sanctuary discussion, to request a follow-up meeting to spend more time on the wildlife management proposals.
Comment on the bear sanctuary proposal was cut off after 50 minutes, with more people still waiting in the wings after the 38 people who did get the chance to speak had made their point. A count of people who desired to speak but could not due to the time limit was not available prior to SMN’s press time, nor was a list of correct name spellings for those who did.
The Wildlife Commission will vote on the proposed regulations during its February meeting, and approved rules will go into effect Aug. 1 pending review by the Rules Review Commission. Rules that receive 10 or more letters requesting legislative review will be delayed until that review takes place.
To read the proposed regulations or submit a comment online, visit ncwildlife.org/proposed-regulations.