Bear hunting approved for sanctuary areas
In a unanimous vote Feb. 24, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission approved a controversial rule change that will rename the state’s 22 designated bear sanctuaries to “designated bear management units” and allow bear hunting in three of them.
“We know right now that the mountain bear populations is 7,000-plus bears, and it’s growing at 6% a year,” said Wildlife Biologist Brad Howard during a board discussion Feb. 23. “Our target 10 years ago was to stabilize the growth rate of the mountain population, and we just haven’t done it. It’s still growing. We’ll be at 9,000 bears in the very foreseeable future if we don’t get more harvest pressure on these bear populations.”
The areas under discussion — the Panthertown-Bonas Defeat , Standing Indian and Pisgah bear sanctuaries — have been off-limits to bear hunters since 1971, when the bear sanctuary system was created to protect breeding females and bolster the state’s struggling bear population. In the decades since, that population has rebounded and the Wildlife Commission has shifted its focus from growing it to holding it steady. While the Commission has successfully reduced the population growth rate to 0% in North Carolina’s coastal region, the mountain population continues to increase .
The agency hopes that applying hunting pressure to these high-density areas will help stabilize the population at current levels. It wouldn’t be the first time a sanctuary was opened to permit hunting — the Wildlife Commission has allowed bear hunts at the Mt. Mitchell Bear Sanctuary since 2006 and the Daniel Boone Bear Sanctuary since 2009.
While initial plans are for a “pretty conservative” hunt, said Howard, “We may be coming back to you in a couple years with more ideas about how to increase pressure.”
The proposal to open additional sanctuary areas to bear hunting received stiff opposition from the public. Melissa McGaw photo
A controversial proposal
Despite the measure’s easy passage before the Commission, it proved incredibly controversial during the public comment portion of the rule-making process. A total of 2,744 people weighed in — a level of participation that dwarfed the 379 people who commented on the second most-discussed proposal — and 86% of them opposed it.
“The sanctuaries are actually the animals’ home, and I consider us, the humans, as their guest,” said Deedee Dillingham, one of the 32 people who spoke against the proposal during a virtual hearing Jan. 20. Only six spoke in favor.
The rule’s opponents said that human actions, not bear populations, were at the root of the increasing human-bear conflicts that spurred consideration of the rule. Education, not hunting, is the solution, they said — sanctuaries should remain safe places for bears to live their lives and for humans who hike to avoid bear dogs during hunting season.
Bill Lea, a retired U.S. Forest Service assistant ranger and prolific photographer of wild bears, offered his vehement opposition to the proposal in a January interview with The Smoky Mountain News, adding that if the Wildlife Commission was going to violate the spirit of the “sanctuary” designation, then maybe places like Panthertown shouldn’t be termed bear sanctuaries at all.
“Maybe they should be called something like ‘Special Bear Hunting Units’ versus ‘Bear Sanctuaries,’” he said. “Then the public would have a much better idea of what is taking place on these lands. It must confuse the hell out of the bears trying to exist there.”
Comments like Lea’s spurred the Wildlife Commission to amend the originally proposed rule change to include renaming the state’s bear sanctuaries to “designated bear management units. The new name will “more appropriately match the definition that’s been in the bear plan since 2012,” Howard said.
In a statement provided to SMN following the Commission vote, Lea made it clear that’s not the outcome he was looking for.
“The decision to open bear hunting on three bear sanctuaries shows how the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission only listens to the hunters they represent and ignores the wishes of the vast majority of the public,” Lea wrote. “The non-hunters and the wildlife of the State of N.C. are in desperate need of an agency that represents their interests. This decision to kill bears in these three bear sanctuaries is a great victory for bear hunters who are represented so well by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. However, it is a very sad day for the bears and the rest of the citizens of the State of North Carolina.”
Lea’s comments echoed the outrage many members of the public expressed following SMN’s initial reporting on the vote approving a measure overwhelmingly opposed by the public. However, said Commission spokesperson Mindy Wharton, Commissioners did indeed consider each comment prior to voting.
“They also participated in discussion with staff at the Committee of the Whole meeting on Feb. 23 about dissent from the public,” she said. “After careful consideration, the rule was approved as to meet the goals outlined in the N.C. Black Bear Management Plan .”
The proposal to open additional sanctuary areas to bear hunting received stiff opposition from the public.
Bear season planning underway
The approved rule states that hunting bear in the three sanctuaries will be legal when the Commission issues an authorized permit to do so, but it doesn’t stipulate how many permits may be issued in each area or what limits might be placed on them.
Those details will be decided through an ongoing process with commissioners and agency staff leading up to the 2022-23 bear season. On Feb. 23, Howard presented an initial glimpse at what the system might look like, but those concepts aren’t set in stone. However, the rules will be different for each of the three areas.
At 9,180 acres, Panthertown is the smallest of the three bear sanctuaries under discussion, but also the most controversial. It’s an extremely popular recreation area, and residential areas ring its borders. Homeowners expressed concern that bear dogs wouldn’t stick to the public land while chasing game and that hunting might disperse bears to areas where they’ll cause problems that aren’t an issue currently.
“It used to be that there was a bumper season in Panthertown for recreational usage. You’d see spring through fall people coming to Panthertown, and there was less activity in the winter,” Friends of Panthertown Executive Director Jason Kimenker told SMN in January. “We are seeing year-round activity in Panthertown that is unprecedented in terms of people coming in October and November, December, January, to use the trail system in Panthertown Valley and recreate.”
The Commission took those concerns into account when drafting the hunt structure, Howard said. He told the board the agency was considering issuing permits for a total of eight two-day hunts in Panthertown, of which six would be for still hunting and two for hound hunting. There would be only one hunt per week, and no hunts on Sunday.
The mountain bear season is split into two segments — five weeks mid-October through mid-November and two more weeks mid-December through early January. Current thought for Panthertown is to restrict the first four weeks of the season to still hunting only, the first two of which would take place on Monday or Tuesday, with a maximum of 10 people per hunt. Still hunting for other game species is already allowed in Panthertown and other bear sanctuary areas. Permits could be issued for one group hound hunt of up to 15 hunters in the latter part of the first segment of bear season and one for the second segment, with a bag limit of two bears per group.
“We feel like this is an attempt to be conservative on the sanctuary, acknowledge some of the concerns relative to potential conflicts and put those hunting groups in there at times that would be conducive to allowing other people to use the area much as they had been using it,” said Howard.
Permit offerings in the Standing Indian and Pisgah areas will likely be more liberal.
For Standing Indian, a 22,910-acre area in Macon County on the Georgia line, Howard presented a plan to allow 16 total two-day hunts — again, none on Sundays — open to both still and hound hunters. There would be a limit of 25 permits per hunt and a maximum group size of 20, with a limit of five bears per hunt, regardless of the group size.
Pisgah, which at 60,500 acres is by far the largest of the three areas, would be divided into two zones, which between them would have a maximum of 16 two-day hunts, none on Sundays, with a minimum one-day rest between hunts.
Zone 1, consisting of about 14,500 acres north of the Blue Ridge Parkway, comprises the most accessible areas of the Pisgah Bear Sanctuary and would be reserved for still hunters, with a maximum of 20 permits issued per day for two-day hunts — maximum two hunts per week — with the group size capped at five. Staff will define safety zones near areas like the N.C. Arboretum that butt up against the zone.
“We have some high densities of bears right there, and we need some harvest pressure desperately,” said Howard.
In the much larger, more remote Zone 2 — comprising 46,000 acres south of the Parkway — permits would be issued for group hunts only, with a maximum of 30 permits per hunt and group sizes ranging from 10 to 20. There would be a bag limit of five bears per hunt.
“We feel like this is a pretty conservative approach to stepping into hunting these sanctuaries for the first time,” said Howard.
Commissioners had some questions following Howard’s presentation. One member asked that staff consider moving Panthertown dog hunting until after Thanksgiving to reduce conflict with recreational users, and another said permitees should be required to agree not to release their dogs within a minimum distance of private property.
“Because of the nature of permit hunts, we’ll be able to call permitholders and have a discussion with them on how to be good neighbors,” Black Bear and Furbearer Biologist Colleen Olfenbuttel assured the Commission.
Another member asked Howard how many bears he hoped to harvest as a result of the new permits. Howard replied that the agency didn’t have a specific, numerical target but expected the proposed plan to work well, “especially for the first couple of years.”
“Our target right now is to get bear harvest in these areas to start getting some pressure on the bear populations in these areas,” he said.
The next day, when it was time to vote on the proposed regulations , every member of the board voted to approve them.
The rule is now slated to go into effect Aug. 1, pending review from the Rules Review Commission. Proposed rules that receive 10 or more letters requesting legislative review will be delayed from taking effect until that review is complete.
Next stop, Rules Review Commission
The public comment phase of the process is over, but members of the public who want the N.C. General Assembly to review any rule recently approved by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission can submit a written objection to the Rules Review Commission.
If the Rules Review Commission receives written and signed objections from 10 or more people clearly requesting legislative review, the regulation will go before the legislature prior to taking effect. Objections can be submitted until 5 p.m. on the day after the Rules Review Commission approves the rule. The body’s next meeting is scheduled for Thursday, March 17.
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Clearly, the state needs to rename its commissions and agencies as well as what are about to be hunting grounds, not sanctuaries. Example: change NC Wildlife Resources Commission to NC Wildlife Exploitation Commission.