Archived Outdoors

Shifting seasons: Hunters weigh in on proposed bear, deer rule changes

Hunters wait their turn to offer their comments. Holly Kays photo Hunters wait their turn to offer their comments. Holly Kays photo

More than 100 people came to a public hearing Thursday, Jan. 11, at Haywood Community College in Clyde, that took input on what would be the first changes to black bear hunting season dates since the 1970s — and opinions were mixed.

While many of the 21 people who spoke on bear and deer proposals — nearly all of whom identified themselves as hunters — supported the changes, many others expressed concern, with the most common refrain being that the changes would cause bear and deer seasons to overlap, creating opportunities for conflict between hunters and reducing opportunity for youth hunters to bag a deer.

“You need to keep these seasons separate,” said Caldwell County resident David Woods. “I’m telling you, you can mark it down tonight. I would never shoot a man over a dog, but I know people that will. I’m just telling you there will be trouble. If we have meetings next year, we’ll be talking about it, because somebody is stupid enough to do it.” 

Growing population

Back in the 1970s, black bears were rare in Western North Carolina, with fewer than 1,000 of them estimated in the 25 western counties. Thanks to decades of active management from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, that population has steadily increased, to the point that in 2012, the Wildlife Commission adopted a new goal: hold the mountain bear population steady at 4,400 bears.

Despite efforts to halt population growth, black bears continued to multiply. Today, the Wildlife Commission estimates the western population at around 8,000 bears — and continuing to grow at 3% to 4% per year.

In 2022, the Wildlife Commission adopted a controversial measure renaming the bear sanctuaries it established in 1971, during a time of struggle for the bear population, as “designated bear management units,” and to allow hunting permits to be issued in those areas. No such permits have yet been issued, but that’s likely to happen in 2025, said Colleen Olfenbuttel, black bear and furbearer biologist for the Wildlife Commission. Before issuing permits, staff must install new signage around the perimeter of the properties, a process that takes quite a while given the rugged terrain.

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Black bear. File photo

Meanwhile, the agency is proposing a longer black bear season to further reduce the population’s growth rate.

Currently, the first segment of the mountain bear season runs from the Monday on or nearest to Oct. 15 through the Saturday before Thanksgiving, with the second segment running from the third Monday after Thanksgiving through Jan. 1. Hunters can use dogs throughout both seasons but bait only during the first segment. The Wildlife Commission wants to add nine days to bear season and allow hunters to use bait during the second segment as well as the first. If the rule change is adopted, the first segment of bear season would start on the Saturday immediately prior to Oct. 9 and the second segment would start on the third Saturday after Thanksgiving. The changes will help slow down bear population growth while offering hunters new opportunities, the Wildlife Commission says.

Graham County resident Roy Stiles, 78, shared his perspective on how the bear hunting experience has changed since he was young.

“The bear population has grown tremendously in the last several years,” he said. “I feel like our wildlife biologists know what’s best for us because they do the studies on this. I’m very much in favor of [bear hunting proposal] H4.”

Other commenters disagreed, with one calling the proposed season changes “outrageous” and likely to “put a lot of pressure on the sow bears and the young bears,” and another doubting the Wildlife Commission’s estimate of the current population.

“Bear populations, I promise, fluctuate from year to year,” said Cherokee County resident Chris Palmer. “What population you say is out there, I don’t think is out there.”

Other speakers focused less on how the proposal would impact the overall bear population and more on how it would affect hunting participation. A longer season with Saturday openers, they said, would give hunters of all ages more opportunity to get out in the woods, and would be especially beneficial to kids learning the sport.

“I’m a fourth-generation bear hunter, and my children are five years old,” said Henderson County resident Sarah Carpenter. “I have twin girls, and they come up and they ride on the four wheelers with us, but they can’t come on a Monday. Having a Saturday opener is how we are going to perpetuate this tradition and this heritage, by being able to get our kids out there.”

Thanksgiving tradition

However, many of the deer hunters in attendance said the proposals would prevent the perpetuation of tradition when it came to deer season. A separate proposal the Wildlife Commission is considering would shift deer seasons in the western region such that young hunters would no longer be able to spend their days off during Thanksgiving break enthralled in the start of gun season.

Gun season starts the Monday before Thanksgiving and runs through the third Saturday after Thanksgiving week, but the proposed regulation would shift that season to instead start the Saturday after Thanksgiving and run through Jan. 1. Likewise, the start of blackpowder season would move from the first Monday in October to two Saturdays before Thanksgiving.

“Currently, 84% of our buck harvest occurs prior to peak conception, and we really need to shift that later in the season,” said Brad Howard, wildlife management division chief for the Wildlife Commission. “Shifting blackpowder and gun seasons later will reduce the vulnerability of yearling bucks during the early dispersal. So that’ll help us get more yearling bucks spread across the landscape.”

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White-tailed deer. File photo

Gun season is by far the most popular of the three deer seasons in the western region. During the 2022-23 season in Haywood County, for example, a total of 590 deer were harvested. Of those, 416 were taken during gun season, 77 during crossbow season, 70 during archery season, and only 27 during blackpowder season.

“If you take that Thanksgiving week away, they [the kids] get to hunt one day,” said Buncombe County resident Glen Weathers. “They get to hunt on Saturday. That’s not putting things where you’re gonna have hunters in the future. Kids will not really get into hunting one day out of deer season.”

Deer season does extend through the Christmas break, but several commenters said that by that time, deer are scarce and success rates low. Some speakers offered their thoughts on solutions to satisfy both the need to shift the season dates and the desire to accommodate young hunters. One suggested that the Wildlife Commission add youth hunting days in October and November in addition to the one that already takes place in September, while another said that youth hunters should be allowed to use a rifle during muzzleloader season.

In an interview, Wildlife Commissioner Brad Stanback said that last suggestion was “one of the most interesting comments” he heard that evening. Rep. Mike Clampitt (R-Swain), also in attendance that night, said he’d be in favor of youth hunters being able to use weapons other than muzzleloaders the week of Thanksgiving.

Overlapping seasons

The most rigorous critique of the recommendations concerned the overlap between bear season and deer gun season that would occur if they were adopted. Though deer archery season does overlap with bear season in the western region, gun and blackpowder seasons take place separately. Under the proposed changes, these deer seasons would overlap with bear season for one week in November and three weeks in December.

“I wouldn’t like to see the bear season and the deer season cross over,” said Haywood County resident Edward Rogers. “I just think there’s too many opportunities to work on the deer population while you’re bear hunting. I know private land is definitely way better than our public lands [for deer hunting], so I’d like the Commission to look into more detailed deer regulations on the public side.”

In the western region, deer hunting with dogs is not allowed, and packs of dogs running through an area where a deer hunter has spent hours patiently waiting in a tree stand can render an entire morning of effort worthless. One commenter alluded to the potential for violence, saying that if a bear dog comes running across while he’s in the deer stand, “somebody’s going to be picking it up,” — a sentiment that elicited a rumble of mixed reaction from the audience.

Despite the dire warnings some commenters offered about the potential for conflict, Wildlife Commission staff expressed confidence that the overlap would work.

“I know everybody’s nervous about this, but we only have so many months and so many days, and a lot of people wanting to hunt,” Howard told the crowd. “We either are going to hunt together, or there’s entities out there waiting right now to take us apart completely. I don’t know how to say it any better than that.”

Other areas of the state already have a similar overlap, he said, with no issues. In an interview, Olfenbuttel said that the agency heard from “quite a few” hunters during a string of summer forums drawing more than 300 bear hunters who said the overlap would work fine. Additionally, she said, there should be some natural separation given that most bear hunters hunt on public land and most deer hunters hunt on private land.

“Back in the ‘70s, the only place to bear hunt and deer hunt was on national forest, and so we did have bear hunters and deer hunters right on top of each other hunting in the same concentrated little areas because there was no place else to hunt,” she said.

Things have changed since then.

“We’re seeing that most deer hunting is taking place on private lands,” she said. “A majority of bear hunting and harvest takes place on public lands, specifically our game lands, including the National Forest. So there’s just a lot more area in general, especially for deer hunters, to hunt.”

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A hunter lines up his shot. File photo

Clampitt said that compromise will be key to reaching an agreeable solution. He and Rep. Karl Gillespie, who also attended the hearing, serve as vice-chairs of the House Committee on Wildlife Resources. Should the Wildlife Commission adopt a rule that draws substantial public opposition, there is a process in place whereby the legislature can review those rules before they go into effect.

“Well, naturally, I have concerns of what the hunters from both sides have concerns of and hope that we can address it and be amicable to both sides,” Clampitt said, adding that the committee has been reviewing the proposals and will continue to monitor the issues involved.

“I am glad there was a good turnout and folks felt comfortable sharing their opinions,” Gillespie added. “I am confident that N.C. Wildlife will take into consideration all the comments that were made, and I look forward to seeing the final recommendations.”

The public comment process remains ongoing, with a hearing planned for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 17 in New Bern and an online session to be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 18. Written comments will be accepted through Tuesday, Jan. 30. The Wildlife Commission will then review public input and vote to accept, reject or modify the rule proposals.

Be heard

Written comments on the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s proposed rule changes can be submitted through Tuesday, Jan. 30, with a virtual public hearing slated for 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 18. To read the proposals, submit comments or register for the virtual hearing, visit

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