Bear hunting season kicks off in western North Carolina on October 18, amid a healthy and growing population of black bears in the mountains that experts seek to stabilize.
Western North Carolina is home to between 7,000 and 9,000 black bears, a population that grows 5-7% each year, said Colleen Olfenbuttel, black bear and furbearer biologist at North Carolina Wildlife Resources. Commission.
“We are trying to reduce it to 1% -2%, that’s our target,” she said.
Hunting is one of the main ways to achieve this goal, said Olfenbuttel, a highly regulated way for authorities to keep tabs on bear populations.
“It’s a really healthy population,” said Justin McVey, mountain region wildlife biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Commission. “The bears are really healthy and looking great, and we would just like to slow that growth down. We don’t want them to expand further east and don’t want more in these urban and suburban areas ( zones). “
“In the Asheville area, cars are the number one killer (for bears),” Olfenbuttel said. “It’s completely unregulated, but of course it endangers human safety and we don’t like a bear to die this way.”
Looking at all the ways bears die, from cars, from hunting or starvation, she said regulated hunting is the preferred way to manage this population.
“From our perspective, bears have been restored in North Carolina,” she said.
Efforts are now turning to bear population management, a balance between cultural carrying capacity, or the number of bears a community will tolerate, and biological carrying capacity, or the number of bears that ‘a local habitat can support.
In areas around Asheville, populations have already exceeded this cultural carrying capacity, Olfenbuttel said, but there is still a lot of biological carrying capacity.
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Hunting, as well as appropriate practices such as BearWise discouraging human-bear interactions is one way to strike that balance and is highly regulated, she said.
“If we have to grow more bears, we can be very conservative with the hunt,” she said. “If we are to stabilize the population, maybe we make the season more liberal.”
The bear season for the Western Bear Management Unit in and west of Surry, Wilkes, Caldwell, Burke and Cleveland counties runs from October 18 to November 18. 20 and 13 Dec.-Jan. 1, with different dates in the Piedmont and eastern parts of the state, according to NCWRC.
Hunters must have their big game license and a Bear management electronic stamp, McVey said, which allows each hunter to harvest only one bear per season.
On average, 75,000 to 85,000 North Carolina residents get a stamp, Olfenbuttel said, but there are only about 10,000 to 13,000 active bear hunters, and less than a third of them. between them will harvest a bear during the hunting season.
According to a North Carolina Black Bear Annual Report compiled by Offenbuttel, 3,476 bears were harvested statewide during the 2019 season, including 1,290 in the Mountain Bear Management Unit.
Those stamps also come with a new requirement this year for hunters to submit the teeth of bears they’ve killed, she said, which has been voluntary since the 1970s but is essential for monitoring bear populations.
From these teeth, researchers can count tree-like growth rings to determine the bear’s age, data used in population reconstruction models.
Dogs and harvests
“The majority of bear hunting is with hounds, it’s the traditional way of hunting,” said McVey.
The NCWRC report states that using dogs to hunt bears is a technique that dates back centuries, and the Plott Hound, a strain of dog developed for this purpose, is the state dog of North Carolina.
In Buncombe County, however, there is still a lot of hunting, or hunting without dogs, McVey said, and a fair amount of harvesting.
The state report says that in 2019, 70% of bears in the Mountain Bear Management Unit were captured by dogs and 30% by still hunters.
In the 2020-21 season, McVey said there were 121 harvested bears in Buncombe County and 837 harvested bears in the 12-county district he covers.
That’s a slight increase from the previous year, he said, although harvests are typically between 600 and 800 bears.
There is a lot of private land and a lot of bears in Buncombe, McVey said, which leads to a fair amount of harvested bears.
Hunters tend to be picky when harvesting bears, McVey said, aiming for larger trophy bears and letting smaller ones go.
Of the 329 bears collected from the mountain area that were sampled by the state, Olfenbuttel’s report found that 66% were between 100 and 299 pounds, with 24.7% between 300 and 499 pounds and three bears, or 6.2%, between 500 and 599 lbs. .
The average weight of bears harvested from the mountains has remained stable to slightly increased over the past 20 years, the report says, with an average weight of 235 pounds in 2019.
Stay safe in the woods at home
“Bear hunters are responsible people and don’t shoot anything that moves,” McVey said, adding that most hunters with dogs will likely have the bear sported, thus reducing the risk of accidents with the dogs. hikers or their dogs.
Most of the hikes around Asheville are also done in areas that are bear sanctuaries where hunting is not permitted, such as the Pisgah Bear Sanctuary in Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Transylvania counties.
Still, he said it’s always a good idea to wear bright or bright orange colors during the fall hunting season, calling it “mutual respect for other users and letting people know you’re there. “.
There are also things to keep in mind when you are not in the woods.
According to Olfenbuttel’s report, 1,733 human-bear interactions were reported statewide in 2018 and 1,323 in 2019, the most recent year included in the report. Of these, 1,143 and 676, respectively, were reported from the 12 most westerly counties.
Buncombe and Henderson counties have the highest rates of human-bear interactions in the state, the only two counties in the state to report more than 100 incidents to the NCWRC in 2019.
McVey’s first recommendation is BearWise practices such as never feeding or approaching bears, securing food and garbage containers, cleaning and storing grates, not leaving pet food outside, and removing bird feeders.
Olfenbuttel also promoted BearWise as a tool to help control populations, claiming that communities around Asheville are striving to become BearWise Certified.
Highlands became the first BearWise certified city in the United States, she said.
All of this human-supplied food makes Asheville bears more acclimatized to humans and therefore more daring with humans, Olfenbuttel said.
“Thing # 1: Don’t feed the bears,” she said. “It attracts them, it keeps them going, while exposing them to the dangers of the cityscape, which is mostly made up of cars.”
But, if a bear threatens people or damages property, it’s perfectly acceptable and legal for people to defend themselves, McVey said.
If this happens, which he says is quite rare, the person must contact the NCWRC within 24 hours, who would then pick up the bear, take action and notify the local game warden.
“Living with bears requires a multi-pronged approach,” he said. “We live in bear country.”
And if everyone could adopt BearWise and other appropriate practices, there would be fewer interactions and bears wouldn’t learn to associate humans with food, McVey said.
Derek Lacey covers healthcare, growth and development for the Asheville Citizen Times. Contact him at [email protected] or 828-417-4842 and find him on Twitter @DerekAVL.