Archived Outdoors

Wildlife in the legislature: Bill seeks to halt expanded bear sanctuary hunting

Male black bears weigh 130-500 pounds, while females are smaller, 90-350 pounds. Bill Lea photo Male black bears weigh 130-500 pounds, while females are smaller, 90-350 pounds. Bill Lea photo

bill  seeking to strike down an N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission rule  that would allow limited bear hunting in three Western North Carolina bear sanctuaries has been filed in the N.C. House of Representatives.

“I filed it because I think the rule is just a terrible rule,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison, who represents the Greensboro area in District 61. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me that we’d be killing bears in bear sanctuaries. I received a lot of comments on it, and I know folks are really upset about it.”

The Wildlife Commission approved the rule in question by unanimous vote Feb. 24. It renames the state’s 22 designated bear sanctuaries as “designated bear management units” and newly allows permit hunts in three of them — Panthertown-Bonas Defeat, Pisgah and Standing Indian. Permit hunts are already allowed in the Mt. Mitchell and Daniel Boone sanctuaries. 

Harrison’s bill contains only a single sentence — it identifies the rule in question and states that the bill, if enacted, would disapprove that action. 

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An estimated 7,000 black bears live in the mountain region. Melissa McGaw/NCWRC photo

The rulemaking pathway 

When presenting it to commissioners, Wildlife Commission staff 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. In February, Wildlife Biologist Brad Howard told Commission members that the mountain area is currently home to more than 7,000 bears and growing at an annual rate of 6% — despite a decade of efforts to stabilize the population at a 0% growth rate. 

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“We’ll be at 9,000 bears in the very foreseeable future if we don’t get more harvest pressure on these bear populations,” he said. 

Human populations are growing too, and trail use  is exploding. In 2018, the U.S. Forest Service asked the Wildlife Commission to increase hunting pressure on Panthertown Valley to reduce human-bear conflicts

However, the public overwhelmingly opposed the rule. During the public comment  portion of the rule-making process, 2,744 people weighed in on the bear sanctuary proposal, with 86% against it. The second most-discussed proposal drew only 379 comments. 

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. 

Friends of Panthertown, the nonprofit charged with conserving and improving the recreational experience at Panthertown, offered staunch opposition to the proposal. While there was an increase in serious bear encounters in 2018, the year the Forest Service requested increased hunting, the situation has improved dramatically, Executive Director Jason Kimenker told The Smoky Mountain News. The organization has not received any reports of close bear encounters since December 2019. In 2020, Friends of Panthertown began installing bear storage lockers in the backcountry, and that appears to have addressed the problem. 

The N.C. Rules Review Commission must give final approval to Wildlife Commission rules, with state law stipulating that any rule eliciting 10 or more letters requesting legislative review  will go on to the General Assembly. A packet collating letters received regarding the bear sanctuary rule totaled 439 pages, markedly exceeding that requirement. 

During its April 21 meeting, the RRC objected to the bear sanctuary rule, stating that it was unclear and ambiguous, lacking specific guidelines or criteria for granting permits. The Commission approved a revised version  of the rule during its May 19 meeting . The new language states that permitted bear hunts in sanctuaries where hunting is allowed may take place only during open season and that hunters may apply for permits on or after July 1 each year. The Wildlife Commission will set the number of permits annually in accordance with population management objectives and issue them based on random computer selection. 

Because the RRC’s final approval of the rule occurred after the legislative session began May 18, the legislative review period will extend through the long session in 2023. According to state law , legislators have 31 days once the session begins to introduce a bill disapproving the rule. However, the session this pertains to is the next one starting at least 25 days after the RRC approves the rule — in this case, the 2023 session. If a bill disapproving the rule is introduced by that deadline, the rule cannot go into effect until the General Assembly either takes an unfavorable final action on the bill or adjourns without ratifying it. If the bill is enacted, the rule will not go into effect at all. 

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Bear and human populations are both rising in the mountains, making conflict prevention a vital task. Warren Bielenberg photo

Legislative future uncertain 

Harrison’s bill  has four primary sponsors and nine cosponsors. All 13 are Democrats, indicating an uncertain future in the majority-Republican legislature. After Harrison filed it May 25, the bill passed a first reading and was referred to the Committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations of the House May 27. 

“At this point, I think it’s best to not allow hunting in bear sanctuaries, at least in part because you’re sort of damaging the whole concept of a bear sanctuary, and there seems to be hunters that are against it and there are other people that mostly don’t like the killing of bears,” said Rep. John Ager, one of the bill’s sponsors, who represents District 115 in Buncombe County. 

Sen. Kevin Corbin, who represents the seven western counties, said that he was concerned when he first heard about the rule and, together with District 120 Rep. Karl Gillespie, invited Wildlife Commission officials to an April 5 meeting in Murphy that included both bear hunters and animal rights activists. Rep. Mark Pless was also present. Corbin estimates about 125 people attended. Video  of the meeting published by Help Asheville Bears shows Gillespie at one point ask for a show of hands from those who support the rule, with not a single hand going up. 

“They were all on the same page,” Corbin said. “Everybody said, ‘No, there shouldn’t be hunting (in the bear sanctuaries).’”

“The reasons they gave me were pretty logical,” he said of the bear hunters’ perspective. “They said those are places where the bears raise their young and they think the bears have the sensitivity to know that they are safe there and not hunted there, and they think that should be left alone.”

Corbin said that he felt it was important for Wildlife Commission officials to attend the meeting and see the public opposition firsthand. However, he does not intend to introduce any legislation disapproving the rule. 

“I don’t have any desire to tell them (the Wildlife Commission) how to do their job or take the authority away from them,” he said. “It’s just that was a particular issue we felt like the public’s voice needed to be heard. And it was. We did what we thought we needed to do. But I’m not going to introduce a bill to change the rules.”

When asked whether they would support Harrison’s bill, Reps. Mike Clampitt, Gillespie and Pless were noncommittal, saying they first needed to learn more about the issue and possible solutions to it. All three representatives are members of the House Wildlife Resources Committee , with Clampitt and Gillespie both serving as co-chairs. Clampitt said he expects the bill will go to that committee for review. 

“It will be referred to Wildlife and we will review it and get input from WRC (the Wildlife Resources Commission) and their position,” Clampitt said. 

The House wildlife committee meets Tuesdays at 2 p.m. 

Leave a comment

1 comment

  • Black Bears are intelligent and smart enough to know when their natural foods are in plentiful/abundant to regulate having cub/cubs.

    Black Bears should be left to live their life that they are meant to live and have Sanctuaries for them to live in Peace.

    posted by Marie Ann Phillips

    Saturday, 06/04/2022

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