Peach State Bear Roundup

Peach State Bear Roundup

Georgia continues to have the strongest bear population in the Deep South. But does that translate into good hunting prospects? Let's have a closer look.

By Kent Kammermeyer

It is said that records are made to be broken. The 2003 bear hunting season in North Georgia certainly confirms that old adage. The mountain region gave up a record total of 256 bears last year, 89 of which came from 16 different wildlife management areas.

This total topped the previous mark of 245 recorded four years ago in the fall of 2000. For perspective's sake, compare that to the 21 bruins harvested during the first bear season in the region, in 1979.

Meanwhile, South Georgia also had a good year, giving up 79 bears, which is the second-highest total behind the 1993 harvest. Seven of those bruins came from Dixon Forest WMA, and the rest came from the five counties around the Okefenokee Swamp.

BEAR FACTS

What made 2003 such a good year in North Georgia? Archers had a fantastic season aided by the poor and spotty acorn crop. Hunters were better able to pattern bears around the acorns, hickory nuts and agricultural plantings like corn and grain sorghum that were available.

Bowhunters harvested 42 bears in 11 counties, with 26 coming from 10 WMAs. After bow season, with the disappearance of most of the acorn crop, it got harder to pinpoint bear movements. Still, muzzleloading hunters took 10 bears from WMAs and another 20 from surrounding lands.

An important change occurred last fall when modern rifle season for bears was moved earlier on the calendar to coincide with opening day of deer season. Consequently, more hunters were in the woods and took 105 bears from private land and 53 more on WMAs.

Georgia bears are abundant, but a lack of habitat makes increases in their numbers unlikely. Photo by Kent Kammermeyer

While hunters targeting deer take most bears, there are ways to improve your chances of specifically finding a bruin. The approach begins with using past harvest records to narrow down the search for the best places for numbers of the elusive black bear. There are roughly 1,500 bears in North Georgia, or about one per square mile in good bear habitat. There are bear populations now in all or part of 16 North Georgia counties and 16 WMAs. It is unlikely that the population will expand further, since all available bear habitat is now filled.

Summer sardine surveys of bear populations done by Wildlife Resources Division personnel began in 1983 and show a steady increase from the bear population at that time of 500 to 600 animals. The population is estimated by just hanging sardine cans in trees in July on predetermined routes at 1/2-mile intervals along ridgelines. Then, you return five days later and record the number of cans that bears have ripped open. By averaging hundreds of stations from dozens of survey routes, biologists come up with the percent of hits by area for the year and an estimated population.

According to wildlife biologist David Gregory, the bear project leader, one reason the bear population has increased is that attitudes of people toward bears have changed. Years ago, even though there was no open hunting season, the only good bear was a dead bear. This was especially true near beehives, cornfields or back yards. However, after a decade of research in the 1970s, biologists determined that there were enough bears to open a limited hunting season in 1979. Ironically, by declaring bears game animals, this elevated their status from vermin to trophy. Soon illegal and indiscriminate killing was eliminated.

HUNTING TACTICS

How can you increase your chances of killing a bear? Scouting is the key. Bear sign includes droppings, which can take various shapes and sizes but often look a lot like cow piles. Unlike cows, however, bears are omnivorous and much of what they eat can be identified in their scat. Expect anything from bits of acorns to grapes, grain sorghum, corn, clover, yellow jackets, ants, hickory nuts, blackgum berries and deer hair. Multiple piles in a confined area indicates repeated consistent use by bears.

Claw marks on trees are another indicator. Bears often climb big white oaks to get in the crown and gorge on acorns before the nuts fall. When doing this, they leave claw marks and chipped bark up the tree trunk, to which they often return day after day.

Start scouting in high elevations, since bears live and move in the high country, which often contains acorns, dens and heavy thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron. During the fall, when bears are not gorging on acorns they are holed-up in day beds in heavy cover, often just a short way from food.

Bears have an unbelievable sense of smell and are easily alerted by the scent of humans. Do everything you can to be scentless while hunting, including carrying a fresh change of clothes and using plenty of cover scent.

WHERE TO HUNT

Even with the recent increase in bear numbers, you can still hunt for years without even seeing one. But by picking the right WMA, you can greatly increase your odds.

The best statistic for picking a hunting area is the number of bears killed per square mile, which allows equal comparison of all areas, from the 148.9-square-mile Cohutta WMA to the 19.7-square-mile Lake Burton WMA. Using this method, the best area has been the Chattahoochee WMA. Its 37.5 square miles, located just north of Helen, have given up a 10-year average of 0.44 bear killed per square mile. However, the harvest on this WMA in 2003 was 0.21 bear per square mile, which was exceeded by both Chestatee WMA, at 0.28, and Cohutta, at 0.27. Any of these three would be good options for your scouting and hunting this year.



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