A shift for sanctuaries: Wildlife Commission considers opening new areas to bear hunting
With already record-high bear populations continuing robust growth in Western North Carolina, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission is proposing a controversial measure to control them: allowing bear hunting in three bear sanctuaries where it’s currently off-limits.
According to the Wildlife Commission, such a proposal is nothing new. Two North Carolina bear sanctuaries already allow bear hunting — Mt. Mitchell Bear Sanctuary since 2006, and Daniel Boone Bear Sanctuary since 2009. Allowing hunting in additional sanctuaries will help control the growing population as increased human development reduces hunter access outside the sanctuaries, the Wildlife Commission says, and it will also cut down on human-bear conflicts in those areas.
But wildlife advocates, conservation organizations, and even bear hunters say the proposal will do more harm than good, and will not address the problem it seeks to solve.
The proposal, which is included in the Wildlife Commission’s list of desired changes for the 2022-2023 season, seeks to allow permit hunting opportunities in the Panthertown-Bonas Defeat, Pisgah and Standing Indian Bear Sanctuaries.
Hunters would have to obtain a special permit to hunt these areas, separate from the general hunting license needed to take bears elsewhere in the state, but all rules and laws regarding hunting black bears — minimum weight limits, bear e-stamps, mandatory tooth submission — would apply to sanctuary permit hunts.
According to Wildlife Commission spokesperson Mindy Wharton, the agency estimates that a total of 521 permits will be issued for the three sanctuaries proposed for hunting, but that number is not set in stone. If the rule is approved, agency biologists will determine the actual number “based on a variety of factors to assist in meeting the management objectives for the Mountain Bear Management Unit.”
That’s different from the information contained in the fiscal note accompanying the proposed regulation, which estimates 521 permits for Panthertown-Bonas Defeat alone but does not state how many would be issued for Pisgah or Standing Indian. The discrepancy is due to an “oversight” in preparing the documents, Wharton said. The number 521 is based on the average number of permits issued on the two bear sanctuaries that currently allow bear hunting — in the 2020-2021 season, the Wildlife Commission issued 1,043 sanctuary permits for the Daniel Boone and Mount Mitchell Bear Sanctuaries combined.
Those sanctuaries cover a total of 53,920 acres. Panthertown-Bonas Defeat includes 9,180 acres while the Pisgah and Standing Indian sanctuaries measure 158,400 and 22,910 acres, respectively.
The Wildlife Commission does not have a hard estimate as to how many bears it expects to be harvested if the proposal is approved, but Wharton said the proposed rules are expected to keep management objectives for the mountain area “on target.”
“This specific area is being proposed because it’s been identified as an area that can aid in meeting our population objective and offset the loss of hunter access occurring outside of sanctuary lands,” she said.
The rule change is only a proposal at this point, with a public comment period open through Jan. 31 and a virtual public hearing slated for 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 20. The Wildlife Commission board will vote on the final regulations during its February meeting, and the new rules will go into effect on Aug. 1. Last year, the Commission approved 40 of 42 proposed changes.
Today, more than 7,000 black bears are estimated to live in Western North Carolina. Bill Lea photo
From 1960 to 2022
Waynesville resident Wallace Messer has been hunting bear since the 1960s, when the bear population was in shambles and hunter success elusive. The sanctuary system changed all that when it came online in 1971, and now, decades later, Messer is still grateful for what that system has meant for bears and for their hunters.
That, he said, is why he opposes the Wildlife Commission’s proposal.
“I like the sanctuary, because if it wasn’t for the sanctuary we wouldn’t have the bears we have today. I think it would hurt us,” he said of the proposal.
It’s been a few years since Messer, 86, has been out on a hunt, but as a member of the N.C. Bear Hunters Association Board of Directors he stays informed on the issues and connected to the bear hunting community.
“Most bear hunters I know of is more or less against it,” he said.
But Brad Stanback, who was also active in the conservation world as the sanctuary system took off, holds a different perspective. He represents the westernmost district on the Wildlife Commission.
“It is becoming clear that the mountain bear population is healthy enough to support a somewhat higher hunting mortality,” he said.
In the 1980s, he said, there were estimated to be only 2,000 bears in all of WNC, with 500-600 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — and poaching was a serious problem. Some estimates held that poachers were killing more than 500 bears annually, with criminal networks extending all the way to buyers in China who paid large sums for bear parts.
Then, the bear sanctuaries were established, an undercover operation dubbed Operation Smoky busted up the poaching networks, and the bear population began to grow. Today WNC is estimated to hold about 7,000 bears, and human-bear conflicts are a perennial issue. Such conflicts are what led the U.S. Forest Service to ask the Wildlife Commission to increase hunting pressure on Panthertown Valley, and Stanback believes it’s a tool worth testing.
“The conservative way to start is to open up some of the bear sanctuaries to more controlled, permit-only hunts, and this is what is being proposed in the current regulation hearings,” he said. “This incremental step is easy to reverse in the near future if it doesn’t seem to be working out. And of course, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will always be a gigantic de-facto bear sanctuary with no hunting ever allowed.”
Opposition from Friends of Panthertown
The Forest Service sees bear hunting as a viable management tool for Panthertown, but Friends of Panthertown — the nonprofit charged with conserving and improving recreational experience in the popular backcountry area — does not.
“It is a bear sanctuary, it has been a bear sanctuary, and people associate their visit with visiting a wildlife sanctuary,” said Executive Director Jason Kimenker. “So we would hope that the state will continue to maintain that bear sanctuary as a sanctuary where bears be free from concerns of human predators.”
In 2018, the year that the Forest Service made its request to the Wildlife Commission, Panthertown Valley experienced an increase in serious bear encounters. As a result, the Forest Service recommended that backcountry campers carry bear-proof containers and bear spray. Though it wasn’t adopted, a rule proposed later that year sought to make such containers a requirement for overnight visitors.
But, the situation has improved since then, Kimenker said — without allowing hunting.
Despite a spate of human-bear incidents in other parts of the region, 2021 was a “very quiet” year for problem bear activity in Panthertown, Kimenker said, with Friends of Panthertown receiving no reports of close bear encounters. Kimenker attributes this to ongoing education efforts and bear safety infrastructure. In 2019, Panthertown was chosen for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics Hot Spot program, which aims to educate communities around heavily used recreation areas in sustainable Leave No Trace principles. In 2020, Friends of Panthertown installed bear boxes at two popular backcountry campsites and plans to place more in the future.
“Based on the quiet year that we had last year, we are hopeful that the success of those storage lockers will continue to decrease and remove further risk of bear encounters,” said Kimenker.
While the Forest Service agreed that visitors are using Panthertown’s bear boxes correctly, those boxes can have “limited value” given that Panthertown is surrounded by private property where bears are often successful finding food, said Forest Service spokesperson Adrianne Rubiaco.
“The U.S. Forest Service supports this proposal as part of a multifaceted approach to decreasing bear-human interactions and increasing visitor safety,” said Rubiaco. “In addition to this proposal the Forest Service will continue to focus on visitor education, recreation site improvements (such as bear lockers), and food storage orders.”
Kimenker pointed out that Friends of Panthertown isn’t opposed to hunting in general. The sanctuary designation prohibits only bear hunting; Panthertown is open to other types of hunting, as well as fishing, and hunters are represented on the nonprofit’s board. It’s bear hunting in particular — specifically, bear hunting with dogs — that the board opposes.
“That’s a lot of dogs and hunters coming through a highly used recreational corridor, which is also surrounded by residential communities where the dogs aren't going to pay attention to boundaries,” Kimenker said. “Whether they're hunting or they're training the dogs, there will be more opportunities for human-dog interactions and other concerns than there are currently.”
A black bear stands on its hind legs for a better view. Bill Lea photo
Bill Lea, a retired U.S. Forest Service assistant ranger and prolific photographer — and observer — of wild bears, is also speaking out against the proposal, saying it’s a betrayal of the sanctuary system’s integrity and a misguided solution to the problems the Wildlife Commission is seeking to solve.
“To me there’s something that feels inherently wrong about establishing bear sanctuaries and then turning around and saying, OK, this year’s we’re going to go ahead and let there be hunting in that sanctuary,” he said. “You either have a sanctuary or you don’t.”
While the bear sanctuaries were originally created as no-hunting zones for bear hunters, that definition changed when the Wildlife Commission adopted the 2012-2022 N.C. Black Bear Management Plan. Increased human development has created “new defacto bear sanctuaries,” the plan said — likely referring to how bears have adapted to living in human environments like cities and neighborhoods — while hunting opportunities have declined.
So, the plan redefined bear sanctuaries as “delineated areas where hunting mortality can be adjusted independently from that of the surrounding area to address local bear densities and to meet population goals for Bear Management Units. Adjustment of mortality is achieved by regulating harvest pressure, which can range from no hunting to a hunting season consistent with that of the local bear season.”
Lea believes this new definition is “misleading.”
“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.”
Lea is also skeptical that allowing hunting in bear sanctuaries will do much to reduce the population or cut down on human-bear conflicts.
Unless a bear has actually been shot, he said, hunting doesn’t do much to change its behavior. With more people living and recreating in the mountains than ever before, bears have been forced to acclimate to sounds like screeching tires, slamming doors and barking dogs — there are no longer any “hidden getaways” for bears.
“I have even been photographing bears when nearby guns have been fired, and the bears do not even look up,” he said. “They can’t tell the difference between a gunshot and a car backfiring.”
Lea also pointed out that many animals, including black bears, adjust their reproductive rate in synch with the availability of resources around them. As more bears are hunted, more food resources become available, which could lead to more bears being born — so the math of bears hunted versus bears surviving is not as simple as it might sound.
“When they kill a lot of bears, it creates a void, and then the bears reproduce at higher rates to fill that void,” he said.
Though perspectives differ on how to address it, the fact remains that bear populations in the mountains are the highest they’ve been since population estimates began and that safety issues — for bears and people alike — are cropping up as a result.
This year, the University of Tennessee Knoxville completed a first-of-its-kind census of bear populations across the four-state mountain region, and the bear sanctuary proposal is the first management action to be proposed based on the outcome.
“Using the results of this research, the Commission was able to verify current population trends and identify areas of high bear densities, which aided in identifying designated bear sanctuaries that could be opened to bear permit hunt opportunities,” reads a Wildlife Commission factsheet on the issue.
In the years to come, humans will continue to vacation, explore and reside in the mountains, and bears will continue to roam them. Finding the path to peaceful coexistence is paramount, but Kimenker and Lea both believe that more education, not more hunting, mark that trail.
“Campers need to know how to make sure their food isn’t available to bears when they’re camping,” said Lea. “Homeowners need to know that their birdseed, their barbeque grills, their garbage, will attract bears. It’s a matter of education and dealing with the problem and not just going out and haphazardly killing more bears.”
“It’s very important to practice Leave No Trace when visiting,” Kimenker added. “We’re very hopeful that the community will continue to do their best to protect the bears and not harm the bears when they visit.”
The Wildlife Commission values the role of education initiatives in bear management, as shown through its enthusiastic partnership in the BearWise program. But it sees education as one of multiple tools — not, as Lea said, “the only real answer” to bear-human friction.
“The recovery of the black bear has created complicated challenges related to a variety of topics including bear hunting, bear/human interactions, management of bear habitat, law enforcement, and many others,” reads the 2012 Bear Management Plan. “Meeting this goal will require the successful management of conflicts between bears and people, public acceptance of management tools (e.g. hunting), and maintaining bear habitats.”
This month, North Carolinians have the chance to voice their opinion on how those management tools should be used, and in February, the Wildlife Commission will vote on the way forward.
Due to rising COVID-19 case counts, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission will for the second year running hold a virtual-only public hearing at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 20, on its proposed regulation changes for 2022-23.
Typically, the Wildlife Commission holds an in-person public hearing in each of its nine districts. Those were cancelled last year due to the pandemic, and this year the Commission had scheduled only three in-person hearings, with the furthest west to be held in Marion. On Jan. 5 the Wildlife Commission announced cancellation of those scheduled hearings.
To read the proposed regulations, register for the Zoom hearing or submit a comment online, visit ncwildlife.org/proposed-regulations.
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The recovery of American black bear (Ursus americanus) in North Carolina is another success story of the North American model of conservation. The crux of the model is scientific management of game species. In the 100 years since the Pittman-Robertson Act and hunting game laws were enacted, the black bear population rebounded and is now thriving across the state. There are now more opportunities for hunters to put black bear meat in the freezer.
In colonial times, black bear meat was preferred over venison. And it was well known that rendered bear fat made the best pie crusts. Hunting with dogs is a historical method of bear hunting that also dates to colonial times. Daniel Boone and his friends and family were well known bear hound hunters in Rowan County. One of the major benefits to using dogs is that it's easier to identify the gender of the bear when it's stationary in a tree as opposed to a fleeting glance offered when still hunting. It is common practice to call off the dogs if a sow and her cubs are treed.
With the annual bear population growth for the mountain region at a steady 5% to 6% and a target growth rate of 0%, expanding bear hunting opportunities by allowing limited draw permits for three additional bear sanctuaries in western North Carolina will not threaten bear populations.
Dogs hunting for bears is what should be banned on sanctuaries. Running/training dogs which starts in august/september runs all-all the wildlife just about to death.
Leave No Trace is not possible when dogs are involved. If they are running a bear & it trees on my property the hunters can follow the dogs &come on my property to "retrieve" the dogs. .I don't want that.
Deer hunters need to weigh in on this- while a bear may not be able to get a full grown deer, bears do know when the deer drop the fawns and
do get a fair share of them.
Why is Still Hunting not being mentioned? The Real way to hunt- where the odds are much more'even' between hunter/hunted.
How about using the western idea for a drawing for a bear stamp in the sanctuaries? - still hunting only.
How about archery only ? That would work in several places where I hunt deer-being 'beared out' several times a season .
It doesn't seem ALL possibilities for this are being considered-
can't solve a problem with same ole thinking- 86 yr old people have memories and experiences- time/conditions change, sometimes needing expanding thinking.
I am very disappointed to learn that the Panthertown Bear Sanctuary is being considered for hunting. Claims have been made that there is a robust growth in the bear population which may warrant hunting. I question this in the Panthertown area and just how reliable the "robust" numbers are. There are been very few bear/human issues and those that did happen were more than likely the fault of the human. Lack of concern and care by visitors combined with minimal education/oversight are big factors.
With 521 permits being considered and with little manpower to provide proper oversight I believe any hunting in the sanctuary is detrimental not only to the bears but to the future of our natural environment. Where I live hunters and/or poachers are constantly crossing the line with trespassing, weight limits, bear stamps, etc., and I'm convinced this would be the same in Panthertown. There just isn't enough reliable oversight and without this in Panthertown the bear population will be reduced to a point of no return. It also invites less than human ways of hunting (utilization of dogs), killing of young bear and encroachment on private property.
Hunters want the sanctuary opened up because they have depleted the bear population in legal areas. What a shame and the wildlife commission should not give in to this pressure and be more responsible. Its simple - Hunting should be forbidden in the sanctuary so the population can continue to grow. Sanctuaries are established for reasons.