Last season, South Carolina bear hunters harvested a record number of bears. Will a new record be set this season?
Photo by Mark S. Werner
By Dennis Chastain
When upstate bear hunters began scouting the woods last fall, they really didn't know what to expect. By late September, there were already reports of a near total failure of the acorn crop. Veteran bear hunters knew from experience that this could either mean that there would be few bears to hunt, or that the bears would be concentrated around a few food sources and it would likely be a banner year.
Well, when all was said and done, the bear season of 2003 turned out to be a record-breaker. The total harvest of 55 bears was, by a large margin, the highest harvest recorded since the DNR first established a separate bear season in 1982. The second highest harvest of 44 bears was back in the year 2000.
Randy Broom, one of those veteran bear hunters, is pretty sure that he knows what accounts for the record bear harvest. Broom is a local bear hunter who grew up right smack in the middle of bear country. He knows the South Carolina mountains intimately and is a keen observer of bear sign. It doesn't hurt that he also hunts these same woods during deer and turkey seasons. He also hunts bears in both in the North Carolina mountains near Boone and along the bear-rich Coastal Plain of the Tar Heel State.
Broom said that he believes that the record bear harvest last year could be accounted for by the scarcity of acorns.
"It had a lot to do with the poor mast crop," said Broom. "The bears were concentrated around the few acorn trees that were dropping acorns and some hickory trees. On any given morning, we could cut a track at first light and maybe get that bear, and if not, then we could go back later and another bear would have come through there to feed. We had several instances where we would go into an area with hickory nuts or what little acorns there were and two or three bears would come out. We had so many tracks that you could just about pick and choose which one you wanted to hunt. It was great for once to have a choice on which bear you wanted to hunt."
EARLY SCOUTING IS THE KEY
Broom said that he usually tries to start his scouting in late summer or early fall, around September. He sometimes takes along one or two of his bear dogs on a leash. This tactic, he says, gives him a chance to look for early bear sign, such as tracks and scat. It also gives the dogs a chance to smell a bear, and it gives him an opportunity to assess the acorn crop for the coming bear season.
Like most hunters, he realized early on that the acorns were few and far apart last season. Since he also hunts in North Carolina, he also learned that most of the western North Carolina mountains were also experiencing a near-total failure of the mast crop, particularly the white oak acorns.
"Up around Boone, they were basically non-existent," Broom said, "but down around Rosman and Brevard it was more like around here, just a few acorns here and there and some hickory nuts."
Bears, compared to other big game, have extensive territories and will travel fairly long distances for food. Naturally, they will cross state lines, too, and Broom believed that at least some of the bears in western North Carolina would come south to find food.
Apparently, that is exactly what happened. Some areas in the South Carolina mountains, particularly the southern slopes, did have some acorns and fairly abundant crops of oil-rich hickory nuts, which the bears relish.
Mike Morgan, another local hunter who is the hunt master for the group that Randy Broom hunts with, came to pretty much the same conclusion. Morgan also figured out pretty quickly that acorns were in short supply. He pays particular attention each year to what's going on in an area just across the North Carolina state line known as the Auger Hole.
"Up in the Auger Hole they had practically nothing in terms of acorns," Morgan said. "So I figured the bears would be coming down this way - and they did."
Morgan added that on any given day his party had no trouble "getting on a bear." For the record, the Mike Morgan party had their limit of three bears by the fourth day of the six-day season.
Morgan also pays close attention to the number of nuisance bear complaints the DNR receives during the spring and summer.
"Some people feel like you can look at the number of nuisance bear complaints and tell what's going to happen during bear season," Morgan said, "but I believe that can give you a false reading."
Morgan's philosophy goes like this: If there is little food in the wildlife management areas - the true mountainous areas where the hunting takes place - then naturally the bears are going to migrate out to the outlying areas where they will sometimes come into conflict with humans. So, in that case, the number of nuisance complaints really just tells you that the bears are hungry. It really doesn't say much about how many bears are out there.
When there is plenty of food in the mountains, however, and the bears are still showing up in people's back yards, Morgan says that means that there are a good number of bears in the true mountains.
Morgan noted that this year nuisance bear complaints started coming in as early as April. Given that the bears had little to feed on in the fall and winter of last year, that probably (according to Morgan's logic) means that the bears were just hungry. It really doesn't say anything about how many bears are out there. Morgan said he believes that the bear population in the South Carolina mountains will always be up and down from year to year, but that overall, the bear population is on the increase.
Wallace Couch, another veteran bear hunter, also pays attention to what's going on in the Auger Hole area, because that is very near where his party typically hunts. However, he puts a little different spin on the situation. Historically, the Auger Hole area, located just across the line in North Carolina, was a rugged, remote wilderness. It has always been good bear habitat and one of the first places that North Carolina bear hunters would head in the fall of the year.
"Nowadays," Couch said, "that place is covered up in houses hanging off the sides of the ridges. I believe that drives the bears down this way across the line into South Carolina where we hunt."
Couch is probably right, given that his party, hunting just south of the state line in the state-owned Jocassee Gorges, got their limit of three
bears in short order. One weighed 253 pounds, the second weighed 200 pounds and the third weighed in at 165 pounds.
THE OFFICIAL WORD
Skip Still, the DNR's bear biologist for the mountain area, confirmed that the 2003 bear harvest was the highest on record, but went on to say that other Southeastern states, including North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia, also had record bear harvests.
"An increasing bear population, plus a poor hard mast year and only a moderate soft mast crop all combined account for the record harvest," Still said.
Looking back at the statistics, Still said, "The bear harvest had held steady at 10 bears or less until 1995. Since 1995, South Carolina has had an average harvest of 25 bears per year."
This suggests an overall upswing in the bear population in the South Carolina mountains. And Still is not concerned about overharvest.
"In my opinion, this record harvest should have no effect on the coming bear season. Up to 20 percent of a bear population can be harvested with no negative effect on the overall population. Even if you use a minimum population estimate of 300 bears, which is a very low estimate, we only harvested 18 percent. If you use an estimate of 500 bears, which is a more realistic estimate, the harvest would only be 11 percent of the estimated population. I think the bears are doing fine right now."
The past year's bear season was so good that some hunters who had hunted for many years without success "brought home the bacon." Sammy Gilstrap of Pickens has been bear hunting for 15 years, but had never killed a bear until this past year. He and another local hunter, Terry Hester, happened to be down in the Eastatoee Valley when the dogs struck a track and soon treed up in the mountains north of the valley.
Gilstrap and Hester, both hardcore mountain hunters of deer, bears and turkeys, fought their way up the mountain through the laurel and ivy thicket to a white pine where the bear was treed. Sammy Gilstrap broke his long dry spell when he dropped the 250-pound sow with one shot.
A number of first-timers and old-timers alike got their bear last year. The three-county harvest for the party dog hunt breaks down as follows. In Greenville County, seven bears were killed. Pickens County hunters took 19 bears - 10 boar bears and nine sows. The Oconee mountains produced 13 bears - eight males and five females.
It was a similar story for those who participated in the still-hunt for bears, which takes place the week before the party dog hunt. Chuck Crouch, a banker from Columbia, has made a point of coming up to the mountains every year for at least a few days of the still-hunt for bears. He and a friend killed a bear the very first time they came up to the mountains several years ago and got the bear-hunting bug.
Crouch and another friend came up this year a few days before the season to do some scouting and began seeing bears right away, but it was mostly before the season actually opened. In the three days that they were in the mountains, they saw a total of seven bears, but unfortunately were not able to fire a shot. Their sightings were either before the season opened, or involved cubs, or sows with cubs. Nevertheless, there is a good chance that Crouch and company will be back this year.
The 2003 still-hunt for bears produced a total of 16 bears. Six bears were taken in Greenville County, evenly split between males and females. Still-hunters took seven bears in Pickens County, mostly males, with only one female taken. In Oconee County, hunters harvested three bears, two females and one male.
All things considered, the bear season of 2003 was one to remember. The question this year is whether the 2003 season was a fluke, or is a trend. Well, most hunters feel it is indicative of a trend.
Randy Broom, Mike Morgan and Wallace Couch all felt that the bear population in the South Carolina mountains is either stable or still increasing. Wildlife biologist Skip Still is also optimistic, but points out that a lot of factors other than the number of bears in the woods account for a successful season.
"Many other factors affect the season, such as past production, soft and hard mast crops in the South Carolina mountains and surrounding areas, tracking conditions for the dogs and hunters," Still said.
He added that he got out of the business of trying to predict the hard mast crop several years ago.
"I made a prediction on mast one year and could not have been more wrong, so I quit making those kinds of predictions,' he laughed. "It will either be great, good, fair, poor or terrible. Maybe it will be good this year."
The truth is, Skip Still's tongue-in-cheek proclamation is very telling. Even professional foresters agree that predicting the acorn crop in any given year requires something just short of witchcraft. Sometimes there seems to be no rhyme or reason why we have a bumper crop of acorns one year and in other years a near total failure.
A good rule of thumb is that all things being equal, white oaks tend to produce good crops of acorns on a three-year cycle and red oaks tend to bear good crops of acorns every other year. The mountain chestnut oak acorn, the largest but least desirable of the acorns, is in the white oak group and generally follows the same pattern as that of the other white oaks. The best advice for bear hunters is to get out there in the woods and see for themselves what is going on, ideally as close to the opening of bear season as possible.
MAKING ROOM FOR BEARS
If there is anything that concerns Skip Still about the future of bears in the mountains of South Carolina, it's shrinking habitat and the encroachment of people and housing developments into the mountains.
"The bears are doing fine right now, but we have got to do a better job of educating people if bears are going to continue to thrive in South Carolina. Bears can tolerate people better than people can tolerate bears. The U.S. Forest Service is taking a harder look at managing for bears and partnered with others to fund a southern Appalachian black bear DNA population study. A lot of partners are coming together to protect and enhance the black bear."
The key to the future of black bears in the southern Appalachians is specifically managing traditional black bear habitat for black bears. In the state-owned Jocassee Gorges in the South Carolina mountains, that job falls to Mark Hall, a wildlife biologist and certified forester whom the DNR has employed as the on-site manager for the Jocassee Gorges property.
Among other things, Hall has begun a program of "daylighting" many of the old closed logging roads that have become overgrown in the years since the previous owner, Crescent Resources, ceased its logging operations.
The shading on t
hese roads that inevitably develops with neglect results in a loss of soft mass for the bears - specifically blackberries, pokeberries, wild grapes and other plants that flourish in sunlight.
"On Jocassee," Hall said, "recovery of limited-use roads that have not been maintained in years is critical to saving money in the future. As we recover those roads, with mowing now instead of bulldozing later, sunlight will reach the forest floor along the edge, where important habitat for bears, songbirds and many other species will result. We will also pursue changes in many young upland stands of woodlands that support off-site hardwoods, such as yellow poplar and red maple. Soft mast species, such as pokeberry, blackberry, blueberry and a host of other seed-bearing plants, will be present during transition. Many wildlife species will benefit from our forest management activities and we hope to fund such efforts with the thinning of timber in other areas."
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to South Carolina Game & Fish