North Carolina Wildlife Commission approves hunting in bear sanctuaries, changing names

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The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission will open more than 92,500 acres at three bear sanctuaries in western North Carolina for hunting, after voting on February 24 to allow hunting there and changing the names to “management areas.”

At its February meeting, the committee unanimously supported changing the rules for the 2022-23 season after significant public input and opposition, a step toward the state’s goal of managing bear populations and human interactions.

The rule change received “important public comment,” according to the Wildlife Commission’s announcement. “After careful consideration, the rule was passed unanimously. The committee also voted to amend the name of these areas from designated bear sanctuaries to designated bear management areas.”

Critics opposed the rule change, questioning whether there was a demographic problem or interaction, the data used to justify the change, and how effective hunting was in achieving the agency’s goals.

Related reports: The North Carolina Wildlife Commission proposes opening 3 bear sanctuaries in WNC for hunting

It seems like a hasty decision, said Mike Bilton, a bear researcher for more than 30 years and professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee Knoxville.

“The devil is in the details on this whole issue in terms of more detailed information about what’s going on there both on and off the reserves,” he said, referring to data points such as how many hunters there are, whether they’re using dogs, where bear killings happen and statistics on how old the bears are. and the sex and condition of those bears.

Bear WiseIt’s a great program, but more information is needed about how effective it is, Belton, a program that helps inform people about how to live responsibly alongside bears.

“It’s too early to think about changing something that’s been around for 50 years without more information,” he said. “I think they made the decision very early.”

Brad Stanback, commissioner for District 9, which includes Polk, Henderson, Buncombe, Madison and the western eight counties, said bear numbers have recovered and could support a higher hunting mortality rate.

Initially, hunting would only occur with a few permits to hunt for two or three days with restrictions on the number of hunters and bears that could be hunted, he said, with some areas for hunters still hunting only, with no dog hunting allowed.

“I don’t think we would be fully human if we didn’t feel empathy for bears and other animals as individuals,” he said. But the Wildlife Resources Commission is tasked with managing the wildlife populations. Had it not been for management by the Wildlife Resources Commission for the past 75 years, there would likely have been no bears at all in North Carolina.”

50 years of bear sanctuaries

Wildlife Commission officials say the changes are in line with state changes black bear management plan which describes reserves as “specific areas where hunting mortality can be adjusted independently of those in the surrounding area to address local bear densities and achieve population goals.”

The roughly 200-page plan, which guides the administration from 2012 to 2022, notes the establishment of the Sanctuary System in 1971 of approximately 800,000 acres “to protect core areas of habitat that include the relatively small home ranges of breeding females” to allow populations to spread out of those areas.

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Bear cub stuck in a jar

The head of an Asheville bear cub is released from a plastic jug after a two-day search.

Video courtesy of Judy Williams

Previous coverage: Residents criticize NC Wildlife’s wild animal hunting proposal, say it’s a human problem

Since then, the number of bears in the state has rebounded. The country of the black bear and the miserable biologist Colin Olfenbüttel He said at the January 20 meeting That the population had risen from less than 1,000 statewide in 1971 to about 25,000, including 7,000 to 8,000 in the mountains.

When proposing hunting in the reserves, Olfenbuttel said at the meeting that the current 5% growth rate in the mountains is down from the 15% seen 15-20 years ago, but that the state’s goal is a 0% growth rate, in order to maintain the current healthy population.

In the 1980s, when Stanback was co-editor of the Katowah Original Journal covering wildlife issues, there were about 2,000 bears throughout western North Carolina, including between 500-600 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“So our bear numbers have clearly recovered from the dismal levels of the 1980s,” he said.

It’s healthy enough to support a somewhat higher fishing mortality rate, Stanback said.

“Roadkill is becoming a significant source of bear mortality, and I’d rather have more bears taken by licensed hunters than crash vehicles,” he said.

The conservative way to do this is by opening hunting sanctuaries, Stanback A, as planned in the Bear Management Plan.

Critics say opening sanctuaries to hunting is a bad idea, questioning what they describe as outdated and limited data used by the commission and questioning the effectiveness of hunting in reducing human bear interactions, an umbrella term that includes sightings.

They don’t let it be up to the decision either.

Bill Leah, a former assistant area ranger with the US Forest Service in Pisgah and Nantahala counties, said he and others plan to address Government Rules Review Committeewhich reviews and approves rules approved by state agencies, reviewing rules for authority, clarity, necessity, and compliance with procedural requirements.

“We just won’t accept it,” he said. We knew that would be their decision and we would move on.”

Not all of them, but the majority of speakers at the January 20 meeting opposed hunting in the reserves, also expressed concerns about hounds in heavily re-established areas, and wondered if there was ever a population increase.

Information contained in the agenda of the Commission February 24 It shows 2,744 people commented on the proposal, with more than 86%, a total of 2,365, against the project.

District 9, covering 12 westernmost counties including Buncombe, was the largest of any district in the state, with 903 pending splits to 163 for the change and 737 against, with three showing no preference.

Supporters such as Michael Wilkins, who spent 30 years running the Nantahala Ranger, said Panthertown Valley in Jackson County is crammed with bears who have become aggressive due to a lack of hunting, including regular users who told him they felt they could no longer. The camp is in the area because of the dangers.

“They are required to have a public contribution but they don’t listen to anyone other than the fishermen they represent,” Leah said. “And for me, no one represents the interests of the wildlife and no one represents the interests of the rest of the public.”

Under the new law, he said, bear hunting will now be permitted in an area that includes some of the most heavily recreated sites in the area, including along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Lea said that the busy fall foliage season in October would now coincide with bear hunting in those areas, “Recreation enthusiasts are now laid off … with no regard for safety, regardless of the impact on entertainment, regardless of the impact on the economy. Places like Brevard and Waynesville.”

In January, Pelton wrote an op-ed saying that he did not feel that opening hunting havens would solve the problems of conflict and might lead to long-term problems in the future.

Opinion: Famous bear researcher says “safe haven” bear hunts a bad idea

On February 28, he told Citizen Times that bears, an attractive megafauna species, are very sensitive animals and deserve some shelter.

“Honestly, this amazing mammal out there, the black bear, has a particularly large group of males, but I think they deserve sanctuary from us humans,” Pelton said.

Part of that, he said, is uncertainty about future events such as climate change, human events or diseases in trees that produce food for bears.

“On the way, as we lose more and more habitat, who knows what will happen?” Bilton said. “I’m just being careful. I think they should deal with this kind.”

Mindy Wharton, a spokeswoman for the Wildlife Commission, said the rule changes will take effect August 1, when the updated regulations guide is published. The reserves will be officially known as the management areas on that date as well.

She said details such as how many permits will be issued and when hunting will be allowed in the reserves are still being worked out.

Bear hunting season usually begins in the fall. In 2021-22, Western Bear Season Dates October 18 – November. December 20 and 13 – January. 1.

At the time, according to the Wildlife Resources Commission, 1230 bears harvested In the mountain bear management unit.

Stady: Bears are twice their size in Asheville, half the time that their rural counterparts

Where are the WNC Bears Sanctuaries?

Panthertown-Bonas Defeat the Bear Sanctuary Jackson County is approximately 9,200 acres, and the Perennial Indian Bears Sanctuary covers 22,910 acres in Macon County near the Georgia state line.

The 60,500 acre Pisgah Bear Sanctuary It stretches across parts of Buncombe, Heywood, Henderson, and Transylvania counties and includes areas on both sides of the Blue Ridge Parkway, from the Davidson River in the southwest to Bent Creek Experimental Forest in the northeast.

Permit fishing is already allowed on 31,790-acre Daniel Boone Berry Reserve In Avery, Caldwell, Burke and ON counties 22,130-acre Mount Mitchell Bear Reserve in Yancy and McDowell counties.

In Daniel Boone SanctuaryThe 2021 hunting season is divided into 16 three-day sections, of which fishermen with permits can choose up to five. Only 25 fishermen are allowed per three-day section.

in mount mitchellThere is no quota and hunters are issued a permit allowing them to hunt during the normal western bear season. Either way, bag limits apply and dog hunting and still hunting are allowed.

Derek Lacey covers environment, growth and development for the Asheville Citizen Times. reach it in DLacey@gannett.com or 828-417-4842 and find it on Twitter @DerekAVL.