Tuesday, September 2, 2014 · 5:10 a.m.

Tennessee bear harvest third-highest in history

Black bear range continues to expand

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A female black bear in a den. In 1973, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency created sanctuary areas specifically to protect breeding females. (Photo: Dr. Frank van Manen)

Tennessee’s black bear harvest passed the 500 mark during the recently completed 2013 season. The specific number, 507, is the third-highest Tennessee bear harvest on record. It is an amazing number—before 1980, the average annual harvest was less than 20 bears. Biologists say there are likely more bears in Tennessee now than there were 150 years ago.

The establishment of the Cherokee National Forest and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1930s began the black bear recovery in Tennessee. Creating that massive block of protected land halted large-scale logging operations and habitat destruction through farming and human development.

And then, in 1973, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency created specific sanctuary areas protected from hunting. Along with the no hunting areas, hunting seasons were set specifically to protect breeding females. Including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there is nearly half a million acres of bear sanctuary in Tennessee.

The result is that bear populations have grown dramatically, and bear ranges have expanded dramatically.

These days, bear management is often more about managing people than it is about bears. As the bear population expands, there are more and more interactions with people—often unwanted interactions or, in very rare cases, deadly interactions. In fact, biologists from across the southeastern United States will soon be gathering in Tennessee to discuss how to prevent and respond to black bear attacks on humans.

Rhea County's Nick Brown was shocked the first time he reviewed his game camera photos and found pictures of this black bear. This photo, captured Aug. 23, 2013, was the first of several times the bear visited. (Image: Nick Brown)

In 2012, TWRA commissioned a special public survey to measure the general public's feelings about a growing bear population. One of the most basic questions asked Tennessee residents if they supported or opposed having black bears in Tennessee. A large majority (87 percent) supported, including a majority who strongly supported (57 percent). Biologists know, however, that the answer to that question might very well change if, or when, a bear shows up in someone's backyard.

During the most recent season, black bears were taken in 11 East Tennessee counties. Monroe County unseated Cocke County for the top county, as 117 bears were harvested. Cocke County was second, with a harvest of 76. Blount County was third with 52, followed by Polk 50, Sevier 45, Carter 44, Unicoi 38, Johnson 33, Greene 26, Sullivan 16 and Washington 10.

Hunting remains the primary management tool professionals can use for keeping bears in check. However, bear hunting is not currently allowed in many counties, such as Rhea County, where bears are showing up routinely. Hunters might expect that to change in the future.

The status of bears in Tennessee reflects that of many wildlife species—and that is the reason the TWRA will soon change its entire mission. For decades, wildlife professionals have focused primarily on restoring wildlife populations. They have been incredibly successful, not just with bears but with whitetail deer, elk, wild turkeys and wood ducks being just some of the species that are now healthy after once being almost decimated.

With the onset of healthier wildlife populations, the agency is shifting gears to focus more directly on maintaining the habitats that support those populations. The agency also recognizes the need for people to have access to those areas to enjoy our abundant wildlife resources. The agency's new strategic plan, expected to be approved in 2014, identifies four core areas in which the agency strives to provide these services while still protecting our natural resources. Click here to learn more. 

When TWRA added specific bear refuges to the existing Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the bear population and associated harvests by hunters began to grow dramatically. (Graphic: TWRA)

Richard Simms is a contributing writer, focusing on outdoor sports. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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