On Feb. 24, the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission (NCWRC) voted to open new, limited permit hunting opportunities in three black bear management areas in the state's mountainous western region. While the unanimous vote enjoyed broad support from North Carolina’s hunting community, it ruffled the feathers of bear hunting opponents both in the state and across the country.
Since 1971, these districts—all three of which lie within the vast acreage of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests—have been strictly managed by the NCWRC as “bear sanctuaries.” The sanctuary status was designed to provide a “breeding nucleus” for the state’s black bear population, which was on the decline in the ’70s but has since enjoyed a substantial resurgence.
“We went from having less than 1,000 bears in the 1970s to now having close to 20,000 bears,” Colleen Olfenbuttel, North Carolina bear and furbearer biologist, told MeatEater. “It’s a great wildlife success story that our agency is proud of. It took decades of hard work and now we’re at the point where we’re managing a restored bear population and one that, at least in Western North Carolina, is still growing at a robust rate.”
According to Olfenbuttel, the black bear population in the western mountain region has at least doubled since 2005. During that same time frame, she says, the western North Carolina human population has exploded as well.
“Back in 2005, the majority of the public in western North Carolina said that they wanted the bear population to remain at the current level, which was below 4,000 bears,” Olfenbuttel said. “We now estimate that we have close to 8,000 bears in the mountain unit. Not only have we seen continued growth of the bear population, but concurrent with that has been tremendous growth in the human population.”
As a result of this population growth, Olfenbuttel says that western North Carolina hunters are seeing a rapid decrease in the amount of huntable habitat at their disposal, as areas that were traditionally open to deer or bear hunting are locked up behind private lands or lost to development.
“With the increase of our human population in the mountains comes development,” she said. “We’re seeing increased suburban sprawl, an increase in the amount of gated communities and other residential communities, and we’re starting to see a marked decline in huntable lands.”
Sprawling gated communities have become so common in the mountains of western North Carolina that Olfenbuttel and her colleagues now have a term for the type of black bear habitat that these areas create.
“So many mountains that hunters used to have access to for bear, deer, or other types of hunting are now gated communities, and we call those de facto bear sanctuaries,” Olfenbuttel said. “Basically, those are areas that, because of the land use or the land owner, have good bear habitat but are off limits to bear hunting for various reasons.”
She pointed out that the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park—276,000 acres of which are situated on the North Carolina side of the Smokies—acts as a bear sanctuary as well, since hunting is strictly prohibited within the bounds of the park.
With the conversion of three sanctuaries to highly regulated huntable areas, Olfenbuttel and her colleagues at NCWRC hope to provide North Carolina hunters, who are seeing access dwindle, with new opportunities to hunt the region’s thriving population of black bears.
They also hope to see the rising black bear population in the mountains plateau managed to more sustainable levels—a goal they’ve achieved through regulated permit hunts in the state’s Coastal Bear Management Unit.
In the Mountain Bear Management Unit, where the newly huntable areas are located, bear populations are expanding at a rate of 5 to 6% annually, according to the NCWRC.
“The action that just took place by the commissioners is completely in line with and supportive of our bear management plan,” she said. “It was driven by the best available science and data.”
Public Outrage While the decision to open these management areas to a handful of limited entry bear hunting permits was widely supported by hunters, conservationists, the U.S. Forest Service, and the NCWRC, it did elicit a predictable outcry from people who oppose bear hunting in general.
According to The Hill, a Washington, D.C.-based political publication that reported on the regulatory changes early last week, 86% of the 2,744 public comments that the NCWRC received leading up to the decision expressed some form of opposition.
Olfenbuttel said that some of those who voiced opposition either didn’t understand what was being proposed or misunderstood the realities of North Carolina’s long-standing bear hunting tradition.
“One thing I gathered from reading many of the comments is, some people thought we were opening up bear hunting for the first time ever,” she said. “We saw people comment who don’t understand that we’ve always had bear hunting as a highly regulated wildlife management tool. We also got comments from people who thought we were creating a year-round hunting season and were going to allow cubs to be harvested. A lot of people just don’t understand how highly regulated our hunting and trapping seasons are, not only in North Carolina but all over the United States.”
A similar article in The Guardian, a news outlet based in the United Kingdom, quoted PETA and the Humane Society of the United States, all but endorsing those animal rights groups in their opposition while elevating their efforts to paint the NCWRC’s latest management decision in an unscientific and emotional light.
There is also a Change.org petition, with more than 8,000 signatures at the time of this writing, that decried the proposal by employing the familiar trope of bear hunters as “trophy hunters” who are fond of wanton waste. MeatEater’s Clay Newcomb has dispelled this myth time and time again.
According to Olfenbuttel, many of those who expressed opposition during the public comment period do not reside in North Carolina.
“We received a lot of comments from non-residents,” she said. “Some were from outside of the country, and some even came from outside of North America. Our commissioners take all comments into consideration, but comments from residents tend to carry more weight.”
Problematic Terminology According to Olfenbuttel, many hunters came out in support of bear sanctuaries back in the ’70s when bear numbers were at troubling lows. But they did so with the understanding that hunting seasons would be re-established once bear numbers met or exceeded recovery levels in these areas.
“With support from our bear hunters, we closed off many acres of land to bear hunting,” she said. “The purpose of that was to allow females to breed and then, as they bred, that surplus population would not only repopulate the surrounding area but be available for hunting in the future. These sanctuaries always had a hunting component to them.”
She says that the term “bear sanctuary” itself probably helped fuel some of the anti-hunting sentiment that materialized around the Commission's decision.
“We realize now that ‘sanctuary’ is a very subjective term,” she said. “We got comments from the public indicating that some people thought we were allowing canned hunts. They thought a sanctuary was a fenced-in area. That terminology, while it may have been sufficient back in the ’70s, had to be updated to better reflect current data.”
Going forward, the NCWRC will no longer use the term sanctuary, but will instead refer to these districts as “designated bear management areas.” To date, there are approximately 490,000 acres spread out across 17 designated bear management areas throughout the Old North State. While a handful of designated bear management areas are already open to restricted permit hunting, most of them remain closed to bear harvest.
Local Opposition While national and international media outlets covered the NCWRC’s Feb. 24th decision, there was plenty of localized opposition to the proposals as well.
Friends of Panthertown, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that has done valuable work to conserve Western North Carolina’s beautiful Panthertown Valley, has been an outspoken opponent of the proposal since January. The organization’s stated mission is to “conserve Panthertown as a backcountry natural resource and to enable sustainable recreation.”
In a statement on its website, Friends of Panthertown said: “We do not believe allowing bear hunts in the Panthertown-Bonas Defeat Bear Sanctuary will solve human-bear interaction concerns or is an appropriate solution given Panthertown’s traditional and current recreational uses.”
The organization also cited concerns about the potential for bear hunting with hounds in the Panthertown area, saying the activity “could be dangerous.”
Western North Carolina has a long-standing tradition of bear hunting with the aid of hounds. The official state dog is the plott hound, a famed breed with roots in bear hunting that can be traced back to the colonial settlement of what is now Haywood County, NC. The Cherokee Nation, which has deep ancestral ties to western North Carolina, also used hounds when hunting black bears in the area.
While hound hunting is a frequent and easy target of anti-hunting groups, it is a highly effective and selective method of harvesting black bears, especially in areas with dense cover like the Southern Appalachian Mountains.
Offenbuttel says that NCWRC staffers are still in the process of hashing out specific rules and quotas for each bear management area, but she expects hound hunting to be permitted in one form or another.
“We are still working on how we want to implement the permit system,” she said. “Each of these designated bear management areas is unique either in size or location. We are in the process now of determining how the permitting system will work on each, and we anticipate that hunters will be able to apply for permits on or after July 1.”