The number of black bears allowed to be harvested in Arkansas's bear zone one was reached in just more than 48 hours during the 2016 season, and most of them were taken by archery hunters.

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is studying how to increase bear hunting opportunities. Bear zone one is mostly in Northwest Arkansas and divided from the rest of the state by Interstate 40 to the south and U.S. 67 to the east. The Ozark National Forest is in zone 1.

Arkansas saw 440 bears harvested in the most recent fall season, the third highest on record, said Myron Means, large carnivore program coordinator with Game and Fish. Sixty-eight percent of the bears were males. Means said the quota for the annual bear harvest was set at 250, or 10 percent of the estimated population in the zone.

"What we always like to see is more males than females in the harvest," Means said.

Female black bears have between one and three cubs for each gestation period. They tend to those cubs for 17 months, and only breed every two years.

Means said the estimated black bear population in Arkansas is 5,000 after bottoming out in the 1930s and only beginning a turnaround in the 1950s. That happened through restocking programs and managed harvest, he said.

"We don't really want any more bears," Means told Game and Fish commissioners at their monthly meeting Jan. 19. "We're at a level where the public will accept them."

Hunters in zone one could harvest 205 bears in October and 45 bears in November. The October limit was reached by noon on Monday, two days after the season opened. The entire season's bear harvest of 259 included only 13 bears harvested by modern gun and only one with a muzzle-loader.

Zone two, which does not have a quota and which contains the Ouachita National Forest, saw 169 bears harvested through the season. Zone five had 11 bears harvested, and zone five A had one bear taken. Those two zones are smaller ones in eastern and southeast Arkansas bordered by the Mississippi River.

Means told the commissioners he believes, based on the quick harvest, that the estimated number of bears in zone one was low and that for the past decade the state's black bear population has been on a slight uptick rather than stabilizing at 5,000.

He called the September-October harvest in zone one unprecedented, but noted in 2015 the quota was reached in four days, while in 2014 it was attained in six days.

"We are taking bears at a 10 percent figure, but our reproduction rate in zone one is 15 percent," he said.

Biologists are looking to adjust the 2017 season quota in zone one by creating quotas by method instead of by month, he said. Under the new system, hunters using archery, muzzle-loader and modern gun would each have an opportunity to harvest a bear. This proposal will be added in the annual public comment surveys in March before formal presentation to the commissioners.

Zone one has a lot of private land scattered in and around the Ozark National Forest, Means told commissioners. The difference between zones one and two is largely the land ownership dynamics. In zone one, he said, the harvest has become "very efficient through baiting." Baiting of bears has been allowed for the past 16 years, he added.

Hunters using muzzle-loaders are getting little chance to harvest bears in the zone, Means said.

"It has been a bone of contention with a lot of muzzle-loader hunters the last several years that they don't get to muzzle-load hunt zone one because of the quick harvest. We didn't want to have overlapping quotas, an archery quota that extended into the muzzle-loading quota that carried over into the modern gun. But honestly, they've gotten so good at harvesting in zone one, I don't think we're going to have an archery overlap into the following season."

Adding the 45 bear muzzle-loader quota also will increase the zone 1 quota to 295 bears, which should better stabilize the population, he said.

From the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, posted at ArkansasOnline.com