Residents criticize NC Wildlife bear sanctuary hunting proposal, say it's a human problem

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A Jan. 20 public meeting on proposed black bear hunting in three Western North Carolina bear sanctuaries brought out dozens of residents ahead of a Feb. 24 vote from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, some citing flawed data used by the commission as the basis for its proposal, while others claimed extra hunting is needed to control the burgeoning bear population.

The wildlife commission is proposing to open Panthertown-Bonas Defeat, Pisgah and Standing Indian bear sanctuaries to permit hunting for the 2022-23 season.

All in-person meetings over the proposed rule changes were canceled, leaving only the Jan. 20 virtual meeting and ability for residents to comment either online, or by mail or email.

At the outset of the meeting, state black bear and furbearer biologist Colleen Olfenbuttel said bear populations have bounced back and now need to be curtailed.

In the 1970s, fewer than 1,000 bears were left in North Carolina, within areas like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and national forests that provided habitat, Olfenbuttel said.

But, she said, by 2005 the population had increased 340% and bears have now been restored to their traditional range across the mountains of WNC.

The commission estimates between 7,000-8,000 bears live in the mountains and about 25,000 bears statewide.

“Bears are a wildlife success story,” Olfenbuttel said. “One that we’re proud of and one that we hope all North Carolinians are also proud of, but with a restored and increasing bear population, coupled with a diverse and increasing human population and their associated development, the commission recognized the need to change from restoration efforts to management efforts.”

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That includes a statewide black bear management plan, she said, and results from a 2005 survey when there were an estimated 4,400-4,900 bears in the region.

“At that time, the vast majority of the public not only supported regulated hunting as a bear population management tool, but a majority preferred the bear population remain at current levels,” she said.

Some preferred a decrease and only a minority wanted the bear population to keep increasing, Olfenbuttel said.

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But some took issue with the reliance on that study, including Lake Toxaway resident Abby Frazer, who wrote in a detailed response that the survey was statewide and included a total of 3,933 people, only 1,268 of whom were WNC residents.

“The Commission is justifying the objective of the population management plan by claiming to follow public sentiment, while conveniently omitting the sample size,” she wrote.

Of those 1,268, 51% wanted bear populations to stay the same, Frazer notes, and 65% of all respondents noted that they had very little or some knowledge about black bears, split between 38% who chose “very little,” and 27% who said they had “some” knowledge.

A map included on a fact sheet about bear sanctuaries from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission shows black bear densities in Western North Carolina with sanctuaries where hunting is prohibited outlined in green and sanctuaries where hunting is allowed shown in red.
A map included on a fact sheet about bear sanctuaries from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission shows black bear densities in Western North Carolina with sanctuaries where hunting is prohibited outlined in green and sanctuaries where hunting is allowed shown in red.

“Essentially they have polled a very small group of ordinary citizens, not biologists or ecologists, who by their own admission know little about black bears, and have used it as justification for the proposed action,” Frazer writes in comments submitted online.

Most commenters oppose change

The majority of commenters who offered opinions on the proposal Jan. 20 were opposed to the opening of hunting on the sanctuaries as well.

Many mentioned the age of the data collected by the commission, safety and trespassing issues from hunting dogs, and some nearby residents doubted whether there is an overpopulation problem at all, reporting they have seen few or no bears in the area.

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Other commenters noted that loss of huntable land also equates to a loss of habitat for bears, and multiple speakers called it a human problem instead of a bear problem, calling for more education for forest users.

A staffer spoke on behalf of Camp Merrie-Woode, a 450-acre summer camp in Sapphire in Transylvania County, who said campers and staff have been recreational users of the area since the 1920s.

Supporting the position of Friends of Panthertown, she asked the wildlife commission to keep the area free of bear hunting.

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Not all comments were opposed to the proposal, including one deer hunter who said that "when you see more bears than deer, it might be time for a change."

Another was Michael Wilkins, professional forester for more 43 years including 30 years managing the Nantahala Ranger District, who said the Panthertown Valley is overpopulated with bears who have become aggressive due to the lack of hunting.

Starting in about 2014, he said he began receiving calls of bears taking backpacks, ripping tents and displaying no fear of people.

In 2017 and 2018, he said the calls about aggressive bears increased to every couple weeks, even when visitors hung food out of reach of bears. He said in 2018 he heard from four or five groups of regular users that they could no longer camp there due to the risk.

A look at the data: 2005 survey

A map from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission shows expanding black bear habitat in the state from 1971-2010.
A map from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission shows expanding black bear habitat in the state from 1971-2010.

The 2005 survey found that 85% of respondents “agreed that it is important just knowing that bears exist in North Carolina” and 70% felt that “the presence of bears is a sign of a healthy environment.”

Of the total, 31% expressed concern about public safety threats, 44% about bear/vehicle accidents, 33% about damage to personal property or crops and 36% expressed concern that bears posed a threat to pets or livestock.

Most, 63%, “agreed that hunting, when properly managed, is compatible with viable bear populations," and 61% agreed that they were concerned about future bear populations.

Related reporting: NC Wildlife Commission proposes opening 3 WNC bear sanctuaries to hunting

Buncombe Mountain residents, at 32%, were “more likely than expected to strongly agree that they were concerned about future North Carolina bear populations,” it says.

A quarter of the respondents preferred that no black bears exist in their area, the study found, and half preferred that bears are occasionally sighted in rural areas, and 74% said they’d support regulated bear hunting in their area if wildlife managers deemed it necessary.

That survey, along with the recovered status of the bear population and its 10%-15% annual increase at the time, informed the wildlife commission’s goal to stabilize the population and reduce that population growth to near 0%, Olfenbuttell said.

A scenic overlook along a trail through Panthertown Valley, a biologically diverse area with waterfalls and granite cliffs known as the "Yosemite of the East."
A scenic overlook along a trail through Panthertown Valley, a biologically diverse area with waterfalls and granite cliffs known as the "Yosemite of the East."

“Regulated hunting has been successful in reducing bear population growth in the mountains from 15% now down to 5%-6% but it has remained at this robust growth rate for the past few years,” she said. “As a result, the estimated bear population has now almost doubled in size since 2005.”

The current estimated population is between 7,000-8,000 bears, Olfenbuttel said, stressing the lower population rates at the time of the survey.

Part of why the wildlife commission hasn’t been as successful in curtailing that growth is the increase in non-huntable areas in the mountains, largely due to development, she said.

In 1971, over 800,000 acres of bear sanctuaries were established by the wildlife commission and originally designed to be a “breeding nucleus” of bears to produce and disperse a surplus that could be harvested without detriment to the overall population.

Hunting has always been a part of the program, Olfenbuttel said, and the definition of the current 17 sanctuaries and 490,000 acres statewide is now “delineated areas where hunting mortality can be adjusted independently from that of the surrounding areas to address bear densities and to meet population goals.”

Permit hunts were allowed on Mount Mitchell Bear Sanctuary in 2006, and on the Daniel Boone Bear Sanctuary in 2009.

This proposal seeks to add Panthertown-Bonas Defeat, Pisgah and Standing Indian Bear Ssanctuaries to that list, Olfenbuttel said, to help get the population growth down to that zero goal.

“Allowing permit hunting on three additional sanctuaries would offset some of the loss of huntable lands that have occurred in the Mountain Bear Management Unit,” she said. “In addition, research supported by our agency and conducted by the University of Tennessee-Knoxville confirm that there are high densities of bears occurring on sanctuaries … this research also helped us confirm the continued robust growth rate of the bear population.”

As part of its integrated approach including hunting, education and food storage requirements to address high densities and “increasingly severe bear conflicts,” the Nantahala National Forest Ranger District requested the permit hunt on Panthertown, she said.

“The Commission also knows that education and people changing their behavior to live responsibly with bears is important to the continued success of the bear population,” Olfenbuttel said. “We want to encourage all North Carolina citizens and tourists to keep bears wild and people safe by implementing the BearWise basics.”

Some commenters in support described hunting as an effective conservation tool.

Callers were left in the queue when the meeting ended, though ildlife commission spokesperson Mindy Wharton noted written comments can be submitted online at research.net/r/WRCAnnualCycle, by emailing regulations@wildlife.org and by mailing to Rule-making Coordinator, 1701 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC, 27699-1701.

"Every comment we receive (verbal, email, mail, online portal) is given the same weight and presented to commissioners for review," she said.

Those comments can be submitted through Jan. 31.

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

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: The public weighs in on an NC Wildlife bear sanctuary hunting proposal

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