The Tar Heel State's Best Bear Hunting

The Tar Heel State's Best Bear Hunting

For investors, a bear market is bad news. But for black bear hunters in North Carolina, the "bear market" has never been better. (October 2009)

As autumn falls across the coastal plain and mountains, turning the maple and blackgum leaves red and the hickory leaves brilliant yellow, black bear hunters ascend the mountains and descend the Coastal Plain. These traveling hunters come from all across the state, many other states and even some other countries. Thanks to excellent management programs for the state's biggest big game animal, most Tar Heels can find topnotch bear hunting by traveling no more than a few hours.

Tracey Conner with her 540-pound Tyrrell County black bear, taken with a rifle from a distance of 125 yards during a spot-and-stalk hunt.
Photo by Mike Marsh.

The state's indigenous black bears are among the biggest specimens of their species anywhere and reach some of the highest population densities. In a reverse twist to the infamous Wall Street metaphor, a "bear market" for hunters is good news for the state's hunters.

The best place to hunt black bears is the upper and central Coastal Plain, where a mixed habitat of agricultural lands bordered by heavy forests and dense swamps is ideal. Nowhere else in the lower 48 states does this mix occur in a coastal region. This perfect habitat offers hunters a better chance for success than any other location. But biologists offset the high-pressure hunting with coastal seasons in the upper and central areas that are relatively short and segmented. This makes hunters' efforts intensive, especially during the first weeklong segment.

In the southern Coastal Plain, the habitat is different. Hunters must root out bears from extremely dense cover. With little agriculture available, there's nothing to entice bears into the open.

Hound hunting rules the upper and lower Coastal Plain, as well as the mountains. But the odds for successfully still-hunting or stalking a bear are best in the upper Coastal Plain because of its vast corn and soybean fields.

In the upper Coastal Plain county of Tyrrell, 110-pound Tracey Conner of Creswell had been trying to take a bear with the help of her boyfriend, Troy Sutton. Sutton is a veteran bear hunter, having taken several bears he estimated to weigh 800 pounds. The duo dedicated three hunting days beginning with the Nov. 10 opening day of the 2008 bear season. On the third morning, Conner had her second chance at a trophy black bear.

"I've been bear hunting with Troy for seven years," Conner said. "I got a shot at one and missed it two years ago. But I kept hunting, hoping to get another chance."

While most bears are taken by hunters who course them with hounds or hunt from elevated stands overlooking farm fields or trails leading from fields into dense swamps and thickets, Sutton used a spot-and-stalk method.

"I work on several farms where I know there are some big bears," Sutton said. "We drove the farm roads, hoping to find a big bear to hunt."

After searching for miles, yet another hunt in a long series of attempts again appeared fruitless. But while retracing their pickup truck tracks, the hunters saw a large black bear roaming about 500 yards away in a field they had just driven past.

"He must have been lying down in the field and was probably sleeping when we went by the first time," Sutton said. "But he had gotten up and was heading for the woods."

Huge bears are the dominant animals of their habitats and are therefore nearly fearless. With only a short hunting season, they sometimes become so familiar with farm vehicles they pay them no attention. Their poor eyesight can also give hunters an edge when they are in the open. But for whatever reason, this particular bear paid no attention to the hunter's pickup truck at that distance. Tracey quietly got out of the truck and stalked to a shooting position. With her heart pounding, she steadied her rifle and squeezed off a shot. Browning semi-automatic rifle was chambered for the .300 Winchester magnum cartridge, a perfect round for big bears.

"I want a bear that size hit in the neck or head," Sutton said. "I don't want to follow a wounded bear into the woods."

"I hit him in the eye," Conner said. "I so excited I was shaking. I had gotten to within 125 yards and I was hoping I wouldn't miss. He went right down."

The bear was a veteran of many battles, having earned his position at the top of the bear population. His face, ears and hide were battle-scarred by teeth and claws from fighting with other bears. A healed tooth tear extended several inches down the bridge of his nose to its left nostril.

Sutton drove to the farm's equipment shed and returned with a tractor to retrieve the huge bear. A forklift was required to lift it.

Joe Fuller and Dale Davis, both biologists with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, responded to a call over the "bear hotline" and drove to the farm where the bear was taken to extract a premolar tooth for aging the bear, as well as to weigh the huge male.

"During the first week of bear season in any part of the state, we ask hunters to call the commission's violations reporting number," Davis said. "The dispatcher gets in touch with management staff. If we have a biologist or technician near, they will go to the site and take down the harvest information and weight of the bear. They also remove the premolar teeth for aging. Had this bear been a female, we would have taken the reproductive tract to determine how many cubs she has had and whether she was pregnant. This information helps us track the health of the bear population and determine hunting seasons."

Fuller weighed the bear using a hoist and scale. It weighed 540 pounds. In the Coastal Plain, a 500-pound bear is the trophy of a lifetime. In the mountains, the goal is a 300-pound bear. This was the bear that had filled Conner's daydreams for years. Now, he would fill her living room.

"He looked big enough make two of me," Conner said. "I'll have a full body mount made by the taxidermist."

Bear populations are still on the rebound, having recovered from darker days of the 1970s, thanks to the continuing efforts wildlife managers and hunters. In 1976, Tar Heel hunters harvested just 121 bears. Records were set frequently as counties once closed to bear hunting reopened. By 2007, the harvest broke 2,000, setting a new record of 2,006 bears. That year, hunters harvested

679 bears in the Mountain Region and 1,327 in the Coastal Region. In 2008, the harvest was 2,162 bears, setting another harvest record, for an increase of 1,785 percent over the 1976 harvest. Hunters harvested 857 bears in the Mountain Region and 1,305 in the Coastal Plain.

A record is a record, but a new trend could be developing. The coastal bear harvest may be stabilizing, but the mountain bear harvest may also be growing at a substantial rate. Time will tell if this trend holds. With coastal bear habitat saturated, only a few new areas, such as Greene, Lenoir and Pitt counties, which opened for their first bear seasons in decades during 2008, will add bears to the coastal harvest.

In the mountains, bear range is still expanding from extensive national forests onto private lands. This is continuing source of new bear-hunting opportunities and will expand until mountain habitats are also saturated.

Much of the expansion of bear range is attributed to the extensive sanctuary system. North Carolina has more acres of bear sanctuary area than any other lower 48 state. The majority of bears are taken within 10 miles of a designated or undesignated sanctuary. Many commission game lands and portions of game lands are designated bear sanctuaries. City watersheds, such as Asheville's, state parks and national wildlife refuges, account for most undesignated bear sanctuary area.

There are only a few bears in the Piedmont. While bears have been spotted in every county, only ranges of breeding females are considered "occupied habitat." The eastern and western regions have the most inhabitable terrain in human terms. But black bears find swamps and rugged peaks ideal habitats. These two terrain types produce different food sources for black bears — and food (or lack of food) available for bears is the biggest seasonal indicator of hunter success. In the mountains, hard mast is the most important winter food for black bears. In poor mast years, bears move more, making them more vulnerable to hunters. In the Coastal Plain, black bears have a secondary food source from agriculture. Flood or drought can have an adverse effect on crops, which also forces bears to move around more, exposing them to more hunting pressure.

The 26.4 percent increase in mountain harvest when comparing 2007 with 2008 was based on two things — a decline in the 2007 harvest because of a good mast crop and growth in occupied bear range followed by a return to a normal mast year in 2008. The mountain harvest has been increasing by 50 to 200 bears annually, with dips in this trend occurring periodically.

The small decline in the coastal harvest to 1,305 in 2008 from 1,327 in 2007 is statistically insignificant. Time will tell if it shows stabilization or whether some other factor, such as a poor economy, may have reduced hunter effort. Bad weather, such as a hurricane strike, may also reduce hunter effort.

"The coastal bear population is healthy," said Colleen Olfenbuttel, the commission's bear and furbearer biologist. "It's been growing over the last 15 years. But we may see changes in food abundance. When we see a lot of road-killed bears, they are usually moving around a lot trying to find food. Some road kills may be caused by local crop rotations or switching to crops not used by bears. Drought can also have an impact. We may experience a harvest increase due to dry swamps that makes hunter access easier."

A change in the bear-baiting statute in 2007 allowed hound hunters to strike bear trails over agricultural products placed as bait. But Olfenbuttel said the effect of the new baiting law could not be determined over the course of a couple of hunting seasons.

"Looking at past years, the changes in harvest are in line with changes in bear complaints and road kills," she said. "We are getting a large number of complaints in the mountains, where the bear population is expanding onto private lands where it once mostly occurred on large national forests. On the coast, the bear population has stabilized or is slightly growing. The estimated bear population is about 7,000 on the coast and more than 4,000 in the mountains."

With most of the bear population growth in mountains, that is where the harvest is expanding. But Olfenbuttel said increased human development in the mountains could reduce availability of bears.

"Real estate development is an issue," she said. "In District 9, we've had approximately 350 bear complaints annually. But the number of conflicts between bears and humans is much higher than that. Most interactions are taken care of with a phone call. The person removes the food source and the bear goes away. People have to clean up after grilling out, keep garbage cans in bear-proof enclosures and keep pet food and birdseed away from places where bears will find them."

Finding the best places to hunt bears can be difficult. Bear-hunting leases and guide fees are among the highest paid for any type of hunting in the state. Most coastal bear hunting takes place on private land and most mountain bear hunting takes place on public land. But the public versus private land harvest is result of land ownership more than it is a function of bear densities. There's simply a higher percentage of public land in the mountains than there is along the coast.

One of the best places to hunt bears on public land is the Dare Bombing Range in District 1. It is a permit hunt, requiring an advance application available on the commission Web site or in the special permit hunts booklet. There are two still hunts and two hound hunts.

District 1 counties include Bertie, which had a harvest of one bear from game lands and 43 from other lands; Currituck, 0 and 49; Camden, 0 and 41, Chowan, 0 and 16; Dare, 0 and three; Gates, one and 52; Hertford, three and 29; Hyde, 5 and 154; Martin, 0 and 33; Pasquotank, 0 and six; Perquimans, 0 and two; Tyrrell, 25 and 88; Washington, four and 59.

Top game lands in District 1 include Lantern Acres in Tyrrell County, the Long Shoals tracts of Gull Rock Game Land in Hyde County, Chowan Swamp Game Land in Gates, Hertford and Bertie counties, Bachelor Bay Game Land in Martin County, Van Swamp Game Land in Beaufort and Washington counties and Buckridge Game Land in Tyrrell County.

In District 2, top counties included Beaufort, which had a harvest of five bears from game lands and 159 from other lands; Carteret, 10 and 14; Craven, four and 61; Jones, 12 and 99; Onslow, one and 45; Pender, 11 and 38.

In District 4, top counties for bear harvest included Bladen, which had a bear harvest of two from game lands and 85 from other lands; Brunswick, 0 and 36; and Columbus, 0 and 30.

Mike Juhan, the commission's District 8 biologist, said Pisgah National Forest has excellent bear hunting.

"Mount Mitchell Bear Sanctuary was opened to permit hunting recently and produced some bears," he said. "Some of the best areas are the more mountainous areas of Pisgah, such as Linville Gorge and the Table Rock area."

Some high harvest District 8 c

ounties include: Buncombe, which had a bear harvest of eight from game lands and 31 from other lands; Burke, 16 and 10; Caldwell, eight and 17; McDowell, 35 and 31; and Yancey, 17 and 57.

Mike Carraway, the commission's District 9 biologist, said the district's bear hunter success depends on year and location.

"We always have a high bear harvest from Nantahala National Forest," he said. "But a lot of bears come from other locations throughout the district. Human populations are growing along with the bear population. Build a subdivision in bear habitat and the bears are still there. But now hunting is prohibited, creating conflicts. Some of these subdivisions could allow hunting to some extent because they are outside any city limits. The biggest problem is with bear hunters losing access to those areas."

In District 9, some high bear harvest counties include Graham, which had a bear harvest of 41 from game lands and five from other lands; Henderson, 0 and 23; Jackson, 20 and three; Madison, 49 and 31; Macon, 74 and seven; Swain, 12 and 4; and Transylvania, 15 and five.

Only time will tell how long new records will continue to be set for bear harvests. But a poor mast year in the mountains coinciding with a drought along the coast would be the formula for a substantial increase in the harvest in 2009.

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