North Georgia Bear Country

North Georgia Bear Country

Black bears continue to hold their own in the rugged terrain of the Blue Ridge Mountains, providing hunters another big-game option in the region. Here's a closer look at this resource.

By Kent Kammermeyer

What are your odds of getting a bear while hunting in North Georgia? Better than you might think and better now than ever before! At least, that is what the statistics from recent hunting seasons suggest.

In fact, 212 bears were harvested in North Georgia in 2002, with 92 of those taken during hunts on public lands at 14 wildlife management areas (WMAs). That annual total ranks No. 4 on the all-time record bear kill list, not far behind the 245 all-time top kill number, recorded only three years ago in the fall of 2000. Compared to the 21-bruin total taken in 1979, when bear season was first opened in North Georgia, the statistics do point to this being the best time in modern history for Peach State bear hunts.

While it is true that hunters took many of these bears while in the woods on deer hunts, black bears can also be successfully targeted. Your approach to this hunting needs to begin with using past history to narrow down the "where to" options. From there it is much easier to progress through the scouting, hunting and harvesting of a trophy bear. In fact, any legal bear taken in Georgia qualifies for status as a trophy.

Today there are roughly 1,500 bears in North Georgia, or about one per square mile of good habitat. There are viable healthy bear populations now in all or parts of 12 North Georgia counties and 15 WMAs. Surveys done by Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) Game Management personnel that began in 1983 show a constant gradual increase in the bear population since that time, starting with about 500 to 600 animals and ending at the current estimate.

Photo by Michael H. Francis

How do you estimate bear numbers? It is really not that high-tech. Just hang special sardine baits in trees in the month of July along predetermined routes at half-mile intervals on high-elevation ridge lines in the mountains. Come back five days later and count the number of "hits." Average hundreds of stations and dozens of bear survey routes and you come up with the average percent of hits by area for the year. This is then compared to past years, and trends can become clear. Georgia's percentage of hits has varied from 12.3 percent in the early years to 53.7 percent in 2002.

The next question is, What has caused the big increase over the past 20 years? According to wildlife biologist David Gregory, who is the bear project leader for the WRD, the main reason is the changing attitudes of people toward bears. Years ago, the tolerance level for bears was near zero. Even though there was no open hunting season, a bear seen was a bear dead, especially around beehives, cornfields, back yards . . . and even on roadways that bears were simply crossing to get back to wild habitat.

Is this upward trend likely to continue? Gregory does not think so, because all available bear habitat is already full of bears and fringes of that habitat are full of people, highways and development. The bear/ human conflict factor is already becoming high, and what we may be seeing now is the heyday of modern bear hunting, along with a time when the general public is apparently reaching its tolerance level for bears.

With regard to the history of bear seasons in the Peach State, after a decade of research in the 1970s, biologists determined that, among other things, there were enough bears for the state to open a limited hunting season in 1979.

It's funny how such things work. Virtually overnight, when bears became game animals, they were elevated from the status of vermin to trophy. With the interest of sport hunters now focused on the species, the great majority of illegal and indiscriminate killing of the past has also ended.

So what does come next for our bear population? In all likelihood, more years of full utilization of the habitat by the animals, and good hunting for the state's sportsmen. But bagging one of the animals is no easy task.

The premier bear habitat areas are huge acreages and you do not simply wander into even the best bear habitat and just shoot a bear. If you can do that, you would be better served to put your luck to work picking winning lottery numbers.

Jimmy Collins of Gainesville says scouting is the key to bagging a bear. And he should know, since he has killed bears consistently with his bow and arrow in the past. Collins attributes much of his success to the fact that he scouts for bear sign every month of the year.

Bear sign includes droppings, which can take various shapes and sizes but for the most part look a lot like cow piles, or pasture patties. Unlike cows, however, bears have poor digestive systems and much of what they eat can be pretty easily identified in their scat. Expect anything from bits of acorns to grapes, grain sorghum, corn, clover, ants, yellow jackets, hickory nuts, blackgum berries, or even deer hair from carrion.

Multiple piles in a confined area indicate repeated, consistent use of that region by bears. This often occurs in groves of oak trees or near grain sorghum fields.

Tree climbing sign is one clue that is sometimes overlooked, especially early in the fall. Bears often climb up big oaks to get in the crown and gorge on acorns before the nuts fall. These bruins realize that if you can't beat the squirrels, join them! When a bear finds a good tree - especially a white oak - the animal is likely to return to it day after day as long as the bountiful supply of food lasts. As the critter climbs, it leaves claw marks and chipped bark on the tree trunk.

The places in which to begin scouting are at higher elevations, for several reasons. The core living and movement areas for black bears are in the high country. That is because this habitat is remote from humans, contains acorns and hickory nuts, and often has heavy cover such as mountain laurel and rhododendron. During the fall, when bears are not gorging on acorns, they are holed up in "day beds" in these heavy thickets, often just a short ways away from food.

Another point that Collins makes is that bear scouting and hunting must include a lot of attention to human scent. Bears have an unbelievable sense of smell and will not tolerate the scent of humans. You need to mimic all the efforts that deer hunters use to eliminate scen

t from yourself and your gear. Using scentless soaps, applying cover scents and paying close attention to wind direction are all very important.

These days you can still hunt bears for years without even seeing one, but you don't have to! To increase your chances, the simple answer is to pick the right area in which to hunt.

The state-operated WMAs are the obvious places to start, since purchasing a WMA hunting permit is all that is needed to access these public tracts. A little research into past bear harvests quickly reveals the best of the WMAs, based on the total bear kill and bear kill per square mile for each of them.

The better predictor of these two is the bear kill per square mile, which allows for a more level playing field when comparing a 90,000-acre tract like the Cohutta WMA to the 13,000 acres of Lake Burton WMA.

Using this method of analysis to pick the best bear areas in the past 10 years, the obvious standout choice has been Chattahoochee WMA, a 25,000-acre WMA north of Helen in White County. The area has a five-year average of 0.45 bear killed per square mile, and its 2002 harvest of 0.51 per square mile also was tops among all WMAs last year.

So why is the Chattahoochee WMA so consistently good for bears? You can bet it is not the Bavarian flavor and tourist crowds of Helen! More likely it is large, contiguous forest tracts found on the WMA, along with few major highways, a variety of timber and understory shrub types and lots of food plots.

Chattahoochee also has a lot of high elevation areas, many above 2,700 feet, which bears use for sanctuary, denning and foraging habitat in all seasons of the year. Finally, when you consider the Chattahoochee's proximity to the Chestatee and Swallow Creek WMAs, plus the Mark Trail and Tray Mountain wilderness areas, it's easy to see that the Chattahoochee WMA is in the heart of Georgia's bear country.

Chattahoochee area manager and WRD wildlife technician David Shattuck appreciates the status his area maintains as the top bear producer but knows it is not an automatic honor. Besides protecting his area against poaching, he also plants and maintains over 60 acres of wildlife food plots scattered across the WMA in 1- or 2-acre patches. Bears are one of the many beneficiaries of this aggressive food plot program, which includes clover/grass mixtures, grain sorghum and autumn olive shrubs.

After Chattahoochee, the best WMAs for producing bears in the past five years are Blue Ridge, Chestatee, Cohutta, Dawson Forest, Rich Mountain and Swallow Creek. In 2002, Chestatee WMA led this group, with 10 bears taken (.26 bear per square mile). Dawson Forest was another standout, with eight bears taken (.23 bear per square mile).

Areas likely to offer good prospects for the 2003 season are Cohutta and Coopers Creek, both of which had somewhat off years in 2002. The Cohutta WMA gave up only 22 bears, or .15 per square mile, while Coopers Creek yielded four bruins (.09 per square mile). Both have produced better in the past, still have good habitat and should pick back up again this fall. After all, the low harvest last season just means there are likely to be more bears in the woods this year.

Counties with the best bear numbers and plenty of Chattahoochee National Forest land that is not inside a WMA are Gilmer, Fannin, Union, Towns, Rabun, Lumpkin, White and Habersham. Other open counties for bears are Banks, Bartow, Cherokee, Dawson, Forsyth, Gordon, Hall, Murray, Pickens and Stephens.

Archer season for bears is open from Sept. 13 to Oct. 10 in North Georgia, followed by the primitive weapons (blackpowder) season Oct. 11-17. This year the gun season for bears opens earlier than ever, starting with opening day of firearms deer season on Oct. 18. The shooting can continue until Nov. 23.

The limit for black bears remains one per year. It is illegal to shoot cubs weighing less than 75 pounds or a sow that has cubs with her.

Bear kills outside of WMAs must be reported within 24 hours to the Wildlife Resources Division at one of the following: the Gainesville office, (770) 535-5700 or (770) 535-5499; the Armuchee office, (706) 295-6041; or the Calhoun office (706) 624-1367. After business hours, call 1-800-241-4113.

Bears may also be checked in at any WMA check station open for a managed deer hunt between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. during hunt days.

Neither the use of dogs nor baiting is allowed for bear hunts. Scents are legal, with a scent being a chemical compound. Anything that is food is regarded as bait.

Finally, bear meat is tasty but requires special treatment. Remove all fat before cooking. Bear fat is dense, has a strong taste and leaves a candlewax-like aftertaste in the mouth. On the other hand, bear meat is rich, dark and can be cooked on the grill, made into stews and roasts, or ground into burgers. If you choose this last route, mix a little beef or pork fat with it for best results.

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