Feature Articles from BHM

THE BIGGEST BLACK BEARS ON THE PLANET?

Mike Marsh

Most hunters who pursue black bears hunt them in traditional hotspots such as the Northeastern United States and Canada. Occasionally a bear in one of those regions breaks the mythical weight of 500 pounds. However, an increasing number of hunters are trekking to North Carolina, where a quarter-ton bear is merely a “good” one.

Colleen Olfenbuttel, the North Carolina Wildlife Commission’s Bear Biologist, said a unique set of circumstances allows so many of the state’s black bears to grow bigger than some grizzlies.

“We never intended for that to happen,” she said. “Our intent was only to allow a hunting opportunity. Our bear recovery began with a source population that was always there. We never lost our coastal bears like other states. Our sanctuary system is certainly a factor. However, the key is immense agricultural production in the coastal plain. Even if natural food production is low, there are agricultural foods available in spring, summer and fall. A coastal black bear never goes hungry.” This is the reason for the above average size of North Carolina’s coastal bears.

Through 2011, 880 North Carolina bears topped 500 pounds. One reason is that so many hunters actually go to the trouble to have their bears weighed. Hunters participating in the state’s Bear Cooperator Program can have a biologist come to the site to weigh a bear and remove two premolar teeth for determining the bear’s age. Slices of the teeth exhibit growth rings like a tree when viewed with a microscope.

Biologists also remove reproductive tracts from females and send them to a laboratory, which determines how many cubs a female has produced over her lifetime by placental scars. Many hunters are so familiar with the program that they take the weights and samples for biologists. A cooperating hunter receives a Bear Cooperator cap, a badge of honor in any gathering. Biologists sample about 50 percent of the coastal bears and about 40 percent of the mountain bears harvested by hunters.

Cooperating hunters call the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission’s Enforcement Division dispatcher (800-662-7137) during first week of any bear season. The dispatcher forwards the location and contact information to one of the state’s biologists. After opening week, hunters can call the Division of Wildlife Management (919-70-0050) or contact a local biologist, who, if available, will come to the site. The Commission dedicates enormous resources to the effort and biologists are always circulation in the field during opening weeks. Winches on their pickups are dead giveaways as to their purpose. Their scales top out at 500 pounds, so they must carry two scales to weigh bears that exceed that weight.

“We have the best bear reproductive data in the world,” Olfenbuttel said. “We could not have collected so much information without our hunters. It would cost thousands of dollars to obtain the data that hunters have provided at no cost. We have a total of 19,000 bears in the Commission’s database.”

At one time, the only good bear was a dead bear and that was not a hunter-harvested bear, but a bear killed while raiding a farmer’s field. Now, black bears bring so much income through hunting lease fees that many landowners are becoming more tolerant. A hunting lease in prime bear habitat can cost $100 per acre. A guided hunt can cost $2,500 to $10,000, with some guides charging higher fees for bears weighing above certain weight thresholds, typically 300 or 500 pounds.

Anyone who doubts the state’s coastal plain produces the world’s biggest black bears has only to look at the top ten. The heaviest bear weighed 880 pounds. Two bears have tied for ninth and tenth place at 720 pounds.

The data obtained from cooperating hunters allows biologists to establish hunting seasons that will maintain stable or increasing populations. The state has five bear seasons that vary by dates and lengths. Biologists consider hunter input when setting seasons. Many hunters travel statewide to take advantage of sequential opening days.

The western seasons open earlier because bears become dormant during cold weather that occurs in the mountain districts late in the year. Coastal hunters are more successful in the northeastern wildlife districts than in the southeastern districts because there is more agriculture, so seasons are shorter in the northeastern districts than in the southeastern districts. Shorter northeastern district seasons are also the result of caution. To prevent over-harvest once the restoration program led to the re-opening of hunting seasons, the northeastern season lengths have remained conservative.

“The southern coastal plain does not produce 700-pound bears and the longer seasons in that region may be a factor,” Olfenbuttel said. “Hunter selection may also be a factor. Knowing that harvesting a bigger bear is possible, some hunters in northeastern districts that are known to produce the biggest bears may prefer not to harvest smaller bears.”

The backbone of the state’s Black Bear Management Plan is a sanctuary system. The North Carolina established North America’s first bear sanctuary in 1971. The state has 400,000 acres of designated sanctuary and 2.5 million acres of de facto sanctuary. Bear sanctuary lands occur incidentally, such as thousands of acres of de facto sanctuary inside municipal watersheds, parks and wildlife refuges, or as designated areas that may be open to hunting for deer and other game.

The importance of sanctuaries cannot be overstated because hunters harvest the vast majority of bears within ten miles of sanctuaries. Bears grow old inside them by avoiding hunters. The only other significant mortality factor besides hunting is automobile collisions, which result in about 7 percent of annual mortality. Since older males tend to have large territories, they travel great distances outside sanctuaries where they are vulnerable to hunting. Of the state’s top ten bears, the youngest was aged 6.75 years and the oldest was age13.75 years.

However, old age alone does not guarantee a male bear will grow heavy. Packing on pounds also requires abundant, high-energy food. The mountain region has produced less than 5 percent of the bears weighing more than 500 pounds. The rest came from the coast, where natural habitats consisting of lowland hardwood forests, river swamps and pocosins, or upland swamps, occur near farmlands. The thick cover provides security and soft and hard mast, such as gallberry, tupelo, blackgum, and acorns, which are natural foods. However, for sumo-weight bears, a diet must include corn, soybeans, peanuts, sweet potatoes and wheat. A scrawny “dog” bear weighing 350 pounds in early summer can become a fat “hog” bear by fall, putting on more than 150 pounds by feeding in crop fields.

Certainly, hunters have taken some big bears in the mountains. However, mountain bears typically feed only on soft and hard mast. Very little agriculture on the scant private land is available to boost weights. But, here’s the bear-rub. The mountains have 1.3 million acres in Pisgah and Nantahala national forests with good bear habitat open to public hunting. Conversely, the coastal plain’s bear hunting occurs mostly on private land simply because there is less public land in total acreage and in proportion to the acreage of public land.

Nevertheless, two-dozen Commission game lands on the coast have produced 500-pound bears. Some of the best are Alligator River, Angola Bay, Bladen Lakes, Buckridge, Chowan Swamp, Croatan, Holly Shelter, Juniper Creek and Van Swamp.

“The state’s bear population in areas where they can be hunted is currently around 16,000, with about 11,000 in the coastal plain,” Olfenbuttel said. “It is the largest coastal bear population in the U.S.”

While a high bear population does not guarantee heavyweight individuals, some of them are bound to grow big as they move into new areas, capitalizing on new resources. In 1971, bears occupied 5,000 square miles of the state. Now, they occupy more than 30,000 square miles. In the last decade, occupied bear breeding range has expanded into all or parts of 32 counties. Bear sightings have occurred in all 100 counties, making inroads into the piedmont where biologists once thought that they had no chance of co-existing with humans. However, bears adapted to people, living in backyards.

“In the piedmont, effectively managing bears and bear hunting is a challenge because of de facto sanctuaries,” she said. “However, I fully expect to see some big bears coming out of the piedmont as we open more of those counties to hunting. Closed hunting seasons have allowed them to grow large.”

As the bear population has grown, so has the popularity of bear hunting. Currently, 65 percent of coastal bears are taken on hound hunts and 35 percent on still hunts. In the mountains, 76 percent of bears are taken during dog hunts and 24 percent by still hunts. In the piedmont, 33 percent of bears are taken during hound hunts and 67 percent during still hunts. However, the piedmont season is relatively young, with only eight bears taken so far. Some piedmont counties do not allow bear hunting with hounds and the Commission is addressing that situation with changes to this year’s hunting regulations.

Another regulations change will allow still hunters to take bears near agricultural products placed as bait during the first week of any bear hunting season. Previously, still hunters were prohibited from taking bears in the vicinity of bait. A regulation change several years ago allowed hound hunters to release dogs and take bears in the vicinity of bait. Therefore, the new regulation creates parity between still hunters and hound hunters.

“It may also assist managing bears in the piedmont where tracts are too small for effective hound hunting,” Olfenbuttel said. “The harvest has been limited but needs to be higher and we hope to do that through longer seasons and allowing hound hunting in more counties. The biological carrying capacity is much higher than the social carrying capacity. People are saying enough is enough. They like seeing bears, but when they experience depredation and damage, they start viewing them as pests. We could certainly support more bears, but people won’t tolerate them.”

Another new regulation requires all bear hunters to purchase a bear stamp. The stamp will help the Commission to determine the number of bear hunters, hunter success rates and provide contact information for surveys.

In 1976, the state’s first year for mandatory harvest reporting, the bear harvest was 121. Since then, the harvest increased almost annually, with the 2012 harvest 2,827 (2013 harvest statistics were not yet available). The new baiting regulations could increase the harvest and add even more bears to the list of heavyweights.

Once upon a time, a “good” bear was a dead bear, shot to save a farmer’s crops. Today a “good” bear is one harvested by a hunter that weighs more than 500 pounds.

Hunters and biologists can pat themselves on the backs for what they have achieved, so far. However, the good old days of bear hunting in the Old North State are not in the past or in the present. They are in the future.