Wildlife officials don’t usually base hunting policies on how the public feels about an animal. But the black bear is different.
The revered king of the forest has bounced back from near-extinction to being a nuisance in areas from the eastern seaboard to California. Some states, like Tennessee, want to know if residents can tolerate bears in their backyards.
In places like the Smokey Mountains, black bears have been part of the landscape for decades. These days, visitors post their encounters online. In one, a trio of truly adorable cubs explores the back porch of a mountainside cabin as humans watch through a screen door.
“The hot tub,” a man says. “They’re going to be in the hot tub now.”
But human interaction with black bears now occurs far from the Smokies. Tennessee has an estimated bear population between 4-5,000. The relatively shy creatures have migrated to areas where they’re less welcome, particularly in parts of the Cumberland Plateau.
“We are receiving complaints from the public that say they don’t want the bears there and we need to do something to get rid of them, and we understand their feelings,” says Daryl Ratajczak, TWRA chief of wildlife and forestry.
Being highly adaptable, Ratajczak says bears will continue to spread, if left unchecked.
“Given enough time, bears will soon be found throughout the state of Tennessee,” he says. “We need to determine whether the general public wants that.”
“Cultural Carrying Capacity”
Other nearby states of Virginia, West Virginia and even Maryland have been gauging public tolerance of the black bear as well. Like Tennessee, they’ve conducted telephone surveys through a company called Responsive Management.
Company founder Mark Damian Duda says there’s still enough habitat for bears to survive. But his survey takers are seeing if states have hit what he calls a “cultural carrying capacity.”
“There’s really biological carrying capacity – the number of bears the land can support – versus how many bears are acceptable to people,” he says. “Sometimes those are different.”
Duda says black bears – while smaller than other species – are often viewed as dangerous, perhaps for good reason. There have been a few fatal attacks. But Duda says people are also generally more protective of bears than other game.
“While the public supports hunting in general, hunting black bears is still supported, but not as strong as hunting for deer or other species,” he says.
Weighing Human Wants, Bear Needs
States that recently expanded hunting of black bears have run into controversy. Animal activists tried using the courts to block a week-long hunt in New Jersey. Last month, protesters confronted sportsmen where they checked in their kills.
Part of the opposition from groups like the Humane Society of the United States is related to the method of bear hunting, which historically depends on a pack of dogs to drive the bear into a tree.
This kind of bear hunting could become more widespread in Tennessee. And conservationists like Ron Castle aren’t necessarily opposed.
“I like having bears in South Cumberland,” he says. “But that’s just me.”
Castle has helped preserve forest land in the southern part of the Cumberland Plateau, which has the secondary benefit of attracting big game. But Castle says he also understands bears require a large habitat.
“Hunting would be more humane than allowing the bears to destroy their habitat and have their population collapse,” he says.
Castle’s chief concern, though, is what’s best for the bears, not how the public feels about the new neighbors.
Tennessee’s phone survey splits the state into three regions, but not the typical West, Middle and East. The first is around the Smoky Mountains. The second is the Cumberland Plateau, where bears are still relative newcomers. And then the rest of the state.
State wildlife officials say they expect regions more accustomed to bears will be less interested in getting rid of them. The results are expected by the first of March.