Monday, April 27, 2009
Bears bounce back
By Colin Moore
Special to ESPNOutdoors.com
link to complete article is here:
|Black bears have hung in there and now their numbers are stable enough for 30 states to hold hunts.|
Are black bears the new whitetail deer? They definitely have come back the way deer did in the latter half of the 20th century. Though they’re far from as numerous as whitetails, their repopulation to the point where they now can be hunted in 30 states is remarkable. This year, tightly controlled bear-hunting seasons have been added in Oklahoma and Kentucky, and will involve the harvest of a couple of dozen animals. In other states with established populations, thousands of bruins will be taken without putting a dent in the number of black bears. A history of bears
Except for the upper Midwest, the hinterlands of the northern Appalachians and areas around Great Smoky Mountains National Park in eastern Tennessee, black bears had all but become extinct in most of their traditional ranges prior to this century. Though black bears still are the most common of the three species of bears in North America, their population in the United States today, with the exception of Alaska, is miniscule compared to what it was when the first Europeans landed on the continent. Settlers virtually exterminated bears, which were easier to find and kill, and more valuable, than deer. Daniel Boone, who led the first settlers to Kentucky by the land route through the Cumberland Gap, noted that in one hunting season on the Big Sandy River in 1794, he killed 155 bears. He and his wife, Rebecca, rendered the fat and sold most of the meat and hides. By the middle of the 18th century, black bears had been slaughtered or pushed into the unpopulated mountain areas of the Appalachians and in the boreal forests of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Apart from in the Appalachians, the decline of bears in the South was a long, slow process. In Florida, the vast expanse of the Apalachicola National Forest once harbored enough bears to support a limited hunting season.
|Most nuisance reports involve bears rummaging through garbage cans, robbing pet food bowls or bird feeders, even the highest of which are susceptible to a determined black bear.|
Since 1994, however, killing a bear in Florida has constituted a third-degree felony. With Florida’s human population exploding from 3 million to 18 million since 1980, bears don’t have much of a chance to thrive in the Sunshine State. Similarly, bears elsewhere in the Deep South are protected as threatened species, though bears are sometimes killed intentionally or accidentally by hunters, whether in fall or during the spring gobbler season. In early April, Alabama authorities arrested two members of a Mobile County hunting club for killing three black bears in the northern expanse of the Mobile River Delta. It’s believed that there are fewer than 100 bears throughout the state and given the habitat limitations, the prognosis for the animal’s recovery in Alabama is doubtful. A success story in the Pelican State
Perhaps the best hope for Dixie bears is to be found in Louisiana, where the topography often favors bears over humans. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks are developing a viable population of the threatened Louisiana subspecies of black bears. Before the recovery project began eight years ago, only a few dozen bears lived in Louisiana — along the coast, in the hardwood bottomlands of the Atchafalaya Basin (the largest swamp in the country) and in remote reaches of the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge in the northern part of the state. Now, though, bear populations in Louisiana and Mississippi are recovering. Winter resettlement projects move hibernating sows (and sometimes their cubs) to new dens in protected areas where they are likely to encounter boars. "The joint efforts really began in 2001, and by 2005 we located a sow that had been bred in the area that she was moved to," says Debbie Fuller, the endangered species coordinator for the FWS in Lafayette, La. "This spring we counted seven more sows with cubs. So it’s working, and for a threatened subspecies, I would say that Louisiana’s black bear is doing pretty good." Fuller notes that the program aims to stabilize bear populations along the lower Mississippi River drainage, in hopes of eventually increasing it. Bear hunting is still a long way off. Elsewhere, more hunting opportunities
In the fall, Oklahoma will become the 29th state to allow hunting for black bears, as a limited bear hunt will be allowed on private lands in four southeastern counties where the Ouachita Mountains straddle Oklahoma and Arkansas. Some fortunate bowhunter will be the first person in modern times to bag an Oklahoma bear legally; since it became a state in 1907, Oklahoma has never allowed a bear season. Twenty tags will be sold over-the-counter for the archery season that begins Oct. 1, and if bowhunters don’t fill the bear tags, muzzleloader hunters will have their chance later that month. There will be no modern firearms season for bears, and still-hunting or stalk-hunting without dogs are the only legal methods. You can’t kill cubs, but sows without cubs are legal. Oklahoma’s bear population is estimated at 800, with at least half of them in Le Flore County, one of the counties in the special hunt area. "Most of the bears we have drifted in from Arkansas, where hunting them has been legal for a long time," says Micah Holmes, the information supervisor for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. "But there are bears in other parts of Oklahoma, including in the area east of Tulsa adjacent to southwestern Missouri and northwestern Arkansas." Other counties may be added to the hunt area later. Holmes says that Oklahoma’s bear population is young and reproducing at a healthy rate. "It’s exciting for us that we have such a neat animal living in our state again and that the population is healthy enough to support hunting," says Holmes. In Kentucky, where incessant logging and hunting share equal blame for the demise of its bears, the animals are coming back in the rugged mountains of the southeast. For the first time in more than 100 years, bears will be legal game.
|The bear population in the United States is estimated at 600,000.|
The hunt quota, says black bear biologist Steven Dobey of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, "is a conservative one." Over two days in December, hunters in Harlan, Letcher and Pike counties can kill a total of either 10 bears or five females, whichever level is reached first. "Research clearly shows that Kentucky’s bear population can sustain a hunt," Dobey said. It was only a few years ago that Kentucky and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation began restocking elk in Appalachia, starting with a few animals. Today, an estimated 10,000 elk roam the eastern mountains. Will the same sort of success story play out for bears? That’s been the case in other states, thanks to applied science and the dedication of wildlife managers and hunters. How Eastern bears are faring
Black bears have always been plentiful in their traditional haunts west of the Mississippi River. In the Rocky Mountain states and surrounding states with woodland habitat, the populations are so healthy, hunting bears is almost taken for granted. In the eastern United States, bear populations are rebounding and range from stable to increasing except in areas where people have reduced habitat and displaced bears. A quick rundown:
Arkansans all but extirpated bears from what was once the self-proclaimed "Bear State" by the mid-20th century. But after decades of unrestricted hunting and destruction of habitat (with the conversion of hardwoods into farmland and excessive logging), Arkansas now has miles of protected bottomlands and swamps that buffer against humans. The state began restocking bears in the 1950s, importing bears from Minnesota and Manitoba. During a program that lasted more than 10 years, 254 bears were released into the Ouachita Mountains of the west and southwest. Gradually the population rebounded from the brink of extinction and today there are about 3,000 bears, virtually all descended from northern ancestors. Maine
Maine’s 23,000 bears constitute the largest concentration of black bears in the eastern United States. Hunting seasons are long (Aug. 31-Nov. 28 for the general season, Aug. 31-Sept. 26 for the baiting season, and Sept. 14-Oct. 30 for the dog-hunting season). Permits cost $27 for residents and $67 for nonresidents. Each year hunters take a few thousand bears from arguably the least-threatened population in the country. The state’s relatively harsh climate and remote inland habitat along the spine of the Appalachians ensures the bears’ future. Michigan
More than 19,000 bears live in Michigan, and bear hunting is wildly popular. More than 12,000 bear licenses were issued last year; more than 55,000 hunters applied for them. Bear hunting takes place in mid-September in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula and from Sept. 10 through Oct. 26 in the Upper Peninsula. Michigan’s bear population has grown substantially in recent years, especially in the U.P., where about 85 percent of bears reside. Bear populations in both Peninsulas are believed to be stable or growing, and an increasing number of bear observations in the southern part of the L.P. indicating that bears are migrating into the farm country. Until 1925, when the legislature instituted hunting seasons, people could kill Michigan bears at any time and by any means. Though the U.P.’s population was never in jeopardy, the same couldn’t be said for the L.P. until bears gained the status of big-game animals. Minnesota
The bear population has declined moderately in recent years, but other than reducing the amount of hunting licenses slightly, wildlife managers aren’t worried that a trend is developing. More than 2,000 bears are harvested each fall (the 2009 season runs Sept. 1-Oct. 18) and 10,000 permits will be available in 2009. Missouri
The best guess is that a few hundred bears live in the Show-Me State, the majority of them in the Ozarks south of I-44. Bears have been sighted as far north as Hannibal, but the counties where the most sightings occur are in Carter, Ripley, Reynolds, Howell, Ozark, Barry, Taney, Christian, Stone and Douglas. As is the case elsewhere, Missouri’s comeback story depends largely on how bears fare in the vast tracts of state and national forests. Signs are encouraging. In February, a man riding a horse in the Busiek State Forest in Christian County reported encountering a sow with two yearling cubs &emdash; an obviously positive sign. New Jersey
Black bears are present in all 21 counties of this, the most densely populated state. The northwest corner of New Jersey, in the Catskill foothills, supports the largest number of bears. No hunting is currently allowed, and the annual political battle over bear hunting in the state is as predictable as fall weather. New York
Between 6,000 and 7,000 black bears roam the state, mainly in what are known as the Northern and Southern Bear Ranges. The Adirondack region (in the Northern Bear Range) supports the largest black bear population in the state (4,000 to 5,000 animals) the Catskill region in the Southern Bear Range contains the second largest population (1,500 to 2,000). Elsewhere, the Allegany portion of the Southern Bear Range has a smaller but growing population of bears (300-500). As is the case elsewhere in the eastern U.S., only fall hunting is allowed and a few hundred bears are taken annually. The population is healthy and expanding in numbers and range. North Carolina
Excepting the central part of the state, where the human population continues to expand, bears are faring well. The western mountains still constitute the best hunting area, but bears are migrating to the counties of the coastal plains, as nuisance complaints suggest. Pennsylvania
There were only about 4,000 bears left in Pennsylvania by the 1970s; today there are more than three times that number. Hunters annually take about 2,250 bears on average, and the past seven years have seen the state’s largest bear harvests. Pike, Monroe and Carbon counties typically produce the most bears for hunters, but bear hunting is consistently good in open areas and national or state forests in the Allegheny region. South Carolina
Bears inhabit the three mountain counties adjoining North Carolina or Georgia &emdash; Greenville, Oconee and Pickens &emdash; and though bear hunting is not considered a major sport in the state, hunters do kill a couple of dozen bears each fall during an abbreviated season. Bears are becoming more numerous in coastal counties, as reflected in the growing number of nuisance bear complaints and auto collision reports. Tennessee
The prognosis is good for Tennessee’s bears, which wander in and out of Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky and South Carolina. The bulk of the population resides in 11 eastern counties. Hunters there tag a few hundred bears each fall. Virginia
In Virginia, most black bears inhabit the Blue Ridge and the Allegheny Mountains or are in the coastal Great Dismal Swamp, but they have been reported in all except the far eastern counties. The stability of the population is reflected in last fall’s hunting tally, when hunters in 64 counties took a record 2,204 bears. The harvest was 35 percent higher than the previous record of 1,633 bears set in the 2006-07 bear seasons. In effect, Virginia’s bear harvest has been growing at an average annual rate of 9.5 percent. West Virginia
As was the case in Virginia, West Virginia hunters notched a record year when they took 2,064 bears in 2008. That’s a 14 percent increase over the previous record of 1,804 bears killed in 2007. The huge Monogahela National Forest along the eastern border with Virginia, and the western mountains adjoining Kentucky, are prime bear country. "Numerous factors contributed to the record harvest," noted Chris Ryan, the black bear project leader for the Division of Natural Resources. "Mainly it’s because West Virginia has a tremendous bear population that allows for a variety of different hunting opportunities. The expansion and increase in the bear population has led to the extension of hunting seasons designed to keep counties in line with their management objectives." Wisconsin
About 13,000 bears live here, most of them in the northern third of the state. However, an increase in sighting reports in the central and southern counties suggests that the population is spreading outside the northern timberlands. More tightly controlled hunting regulations, established in 1986, are cited as the biggest reason why Wisconsin’s bear population has almost tripled since then. Nuisances, Though Not Usually Dangerous
Allowing hunters to shoot bears is more than just a management tool in the East; killing a few thousand bears out of a national population estimated to top 600,000 animals might help save the species. Bears are opportunistic omnivores that don’t depend on killing to survive, but tooth and claw, they have the tools to do so. To humans, they’re somewhere between harmless and dangerous. When black bears come into contact with humans, the outcome is usually no more than a Kodak moment. But not always.
|Increased encounters with humans doesn’t always end in a Kodak moment.|
Each year, hundreds of hikers set out from either end of the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail, and many of them will have unpleasant encounters with black bears. The start of hiking season almost has become a spring ritual for the bruins. In their feast-or-famine world, hikers are the bearers of gourmet gifts, one backpack at a time. Whether they set out from Maine or north Georgia, heading south or north, backpackers are cautioned not to keep food in their tents when they bunk down for the night. That suits the bears just fine. Often they figure out how to get to food that wasn’t hoisted high enough into a tree to be unreachable. The bears come out of their winter dens lean and hungry. In March, a 6-mile section of the Trail in Georgia between Neels Gap and Tesnatee Gap was closed to hikers because of emboldened bears. An estimated 1,500 bears live in the north Georgia mountains, and though most of them keep to themselves, there are occasions when the bruins pay the ultimate price for treating hikers and campers as a food source. A bear might be trapped and relocated if it shows up in somebody’s campsite. If it makes the same mistake twice, it might pay the ultimate price. Wildlife managers throughout the southern Appalachians began taking a harder line with black bears after a female hiker was killed in 2000, and a 6-year-old girl was mauled to death in April 2006. Both deaths occurred in eastern Tennessee in the Smoky Mountains. "We’re no longer putting a bear back out there after recapturing it again and again for the same offense," says Scott Frazier, a biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. "Georgia’s bear management plan was changed last year to reflect the modern thinking that sometimes euthanasia is necessary." Part of that thinking no doubt was based on a troubling trend reflected in recent bear attacks. Though it once was generally accepted that grizzly or brown bears were more dangerous to humans than black bears, biologists aren’t so sure any more. Of the 24 bear attacks since 2000 that were fatal to humans, 15 of them involved black bears. Dangerous animals that become habituated to people and human traffic pose a greater threat than those that only occasionally, or perhaps never, come into contact with a hiker or hunter. A predator, whether cougar or bear, carries no genetic memory of people. Rather, it is something learned through experience. Hunters who frequent bear camps where bait entices bears to within shooting range know that the animals associate human scents with food, not danger. Hunters are cautioned to do whatever it takes to keep a bear from climbing up to their tree stands. Even a bear that’s only curious about the thing in the tree can swipe at a hunter’s leg and open a vein. Though more than half of all nuisance black bear reports involve bears rummaging through garbage cans or robbing bird feeders or pet food bowls, it’s no comfort to those who have been attacked, or who have lost loved ones to bears. No doubt the mother of the 5-month-old infant who was snatched from its stroller and killed by a black bear in August 2000 in New York’s Catskills has a different perspective. Bears are neither good nor bad; they’re opportunistic wild animals. And in the rough-and-tumble world they inhabit, their rules for survival trump everything.