Bear sanctuary hunting rule now up to legislators
Following an April 21 vote from the N.C. Rules Review Commission, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission might not be allowed to implement a new rule allowing bear hunting in three Western North Carolina sanctuary areas that are currently off-limits to the practice.
The Rules Review Commission received a barrage of letters requesting legislative review of the rule, with the packet collating those letters totaling 439 pages. State law requires legislative review for rules that receive 10 or more letters requesting it.
Rules sent for legislative review have delayed implementation dates and could be struck down completely. According to state statute, the clock will start ticking when the N.C. General Assembly convenes for its short session on May 4. Legislators will have 31 days from the session’s start to file a bill specifically disapproving the rule. If such a bill is filed in that timeframe, then the rule cannot become effective until the General Assembly either takes an “unfavorable final action” or adjourns without ratifying it.
If a bill disapproving the rule is passed and enacted, then the rule cannot go into effect.
The N.C. Wildlife Commission approved the bear sanctuary hunting rule by unanimous vote Feb. 24. Under the rule, the state’s 22 designated bear sanctuaries would be renamed “designated bear management units” and permit hunts would be allowed in three of them — Panthertown, Pisgah and Standing Indian. Permit hunts are already allowed in the Mt. Mitchell and Daniel Boone sanctuaries.
The Wildlife Commission said the rule was necessary to slow the growth rate of the mountain bear population and cut down on negative interactions between bears and backcountry users.
However, the public overwhelmingly disapproved of the proposal, with 2,744 people weighing in during the public comment portion of the rule-making process — a level of participation that dwarfed the 379 people who commented on the second most-discussed proposal. Eighty-six percent of respondents opposed the rule.
A Help Asheville Bears video of a stakeholder meeting held April 5 in Murphy shows a roomful of hunters in attendance to discuss the issue with Sen. Kevin Corbin, Rep. Karl Gillespie and Wildlife Commission staff. At one point, Gillespie asked for a show of hands from those in support of the rule — and not a single hand went up.
That interaction was one of several key points in a form letter that made up a significant portion of the packet RRC members received. The letter also pointed out that the rule change stemmed from a 2018 request from the U.S. Forest Service pertaining to Panthertown only — not Pisgah and Standing Indian, which would also be included in the rule change — made in an effort to curb human-bear interactions in the popular backcountry area. However, the letter said, that issue had been resolved in 2020 by installing bear-proof food lockers, with no bear conflict complaints in the past two years and plans to install additional lockers. The letter also took issue with the rule’s ambiguity as to how many permits would be issued and stated that regulating the bear population through hunting is not necessary because bears regulate their own population by adjusting reproductive rates to the resources available.
Additionally, the letter claimed that the rule would hurt the state’s economy because bear season coincides with tourism season, and visitors will feel less comfortable with embarking on backcountry adventures when packs of hunting dogs are running loose.
The bear sanctuary rule was one of 29 changes proposed in this year’s rule-making process. The Wildlife Commission approved all of them. The bear sanctuary regulation was the only rule the Rules Review Commission denied.