Bear management in the Piedmont includes expanded hunting season

By Mike Zlotnicki

One doesn’t have to look far to see successful wildlife management in our area. Wild turkey, white-tailed deer and Canada goose are but three successful comebacks engineered by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and various conservation partners like National Wild Turkey Federation and Ducks Unlimited.

You can add the black bear to that list, and with it an expanded hunting season for black bear in the “Piedmont” region, roughly I-95 west to I-77 between the Virginia border and South Carolina.

The modern era of black bear management started in the early 1970s with the establishment of the black bear sanctuary system. Bear hunters have played a large role by participating in the Bear Hunter Cooperator Program, where hunters work with Commission biologist to collect data. Premolar teeth are pulled to age the bears and weights are taken when practical, and often sows reproductive systems are studied to gauge breeding success. Bands of biologists dubbed “roving check stations” work with area hunters to collect biological data.

For decades, the main black bear populations have been in the mountains and Down East, with the greatest number (and heaviest bears) living in the east. Bears – often young males – have steadily expanded into the middle of the state in search of new territories. With that came a surge in the number human/bear encounters.

So, over a five-year period, the Commission took new bear management proposals to annual public hearings and 32 public meetings (in addition to separate surveys) to gauge the public’s opinion on bears. Afterward, the Piedmont bear season was born.

Basically, in heavily populated areas, the Commission (and the majority of residents) want to keep the bear population much lower than in its traditional habitat.

North Carolina has about 20,000 bears in the state, and balancing the biological carrying capacity (what hunters want) and the social carrying capacity (what the general public wants) is the goal of the new hunting season.

Depending upon the county, the Piedmont bear season started October 18, November 15 or November 22 and runs until January 1. (Check ncwildlife.org/Hunting/SeasonsLimits for exact dates.)

Another change is bear management is allowing bait to be used for bear hunting. Only unprocessed food can be used, and the bear cannot be harvested while consuming the bait, only while traveling to or returning from a bait pile.

The Commission has also started an urban bear study in and around Asheville to learn how bears really react and live in an urban environment. The goal is to trap 40 bears and put GPS collars on them to track their movements. During the den season (our bears do not hibernate in the traditional sense) biologists will visit dens to check on reproduction and to see just what type of dens bears use in urban areas.

With a rapidly growing human population and a growing bear population, it will take a balancing act, including expanded hunting opportunities, to achieve effective management.