On Feb. 24, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) voted to lift a 51-year-old ban on black bear hunting in three designated bear sanctuaries in Western North Carolina and to rename all 22 bear sanctuaries in the state to “designated bear management units.”
The decision was made to stabilize an increasing bear population and reduce human-bear interactions by “removing problem bears and reversing human-conditioned behavior,” according to the NCWRC. The decision was met with backlash from opponents, who say hunting may not target the bears actually involved in human interactions and who favor interventions that address the human side of the problem.
“The more knowledgeable you are, the more you understand bears, the more willingness you have to coexist,” said Bill Lea, a black bear photographer and retiree of the U.S. Forest Service. “If we humans, as the so-called intelligent species, are willing to make minor modifications in our behavior then we can coexist peacefully.”
The revival of the American black bear is the most successful conservation story of any large carnivore, the co-chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission (SSC) Bear Specialist Group Dave Garshelis, Ph.D. told Sentient Media. After being nearly extirpated in North Carolina with the arrival of European settlers, fewer than 1,000 black bears remained by the 1950s. To protect black bears, the NCWRC established 800,000 acres of bear sanctuaries in 1971 to provide secure habitats for females to reproduce.
Today, black bears have been restored to close to 80 percent of their historic range, with a population of roughly 8,000 in the mountainous region in question that has been increasing by about six percent each year since 2020, according to the NCWRC. With the populations of both humans and bears rising across the state, so are the interactions between the two. The NCWRC is tasked with determining when and how to manage call-ins from citizens concerned with increased bear sightings while preserving the health of the species.
“You want there to be a healthy bear population,” Garshelis said. “For it to be healthy, you also don’t want the public to have a negative view that there are too many bears and they don’t feel comfortable anymore. That’s the balance.”
Bear hunting is already permitted in Daniel Boone and Mt. Mitchell bear sanctuaries. The current ruling allows permit-only bear hunting in the Panthertown-Bonas Defeat, Standing Indian, and Pisgah bear sanctuaries, totaling 92,500 acres of land. Unless delayed by legislative review, the ban is set to lift on August 1.
“I don’t think we would be fully human if we did not feel compassion for bears and other animals as individuals, but the Wildlife Resources Commission is tasked with managing wild animals as populations,” NCWRC District 9 Commissioner Brad Stanback said in an email to Sentient Media. “If not for the management by the Wildlife Resources Commission over the past 75 years, there would probably not be any bears at all in North Carolina.”
Education, specifically on how to properly secure bear-proof trash bins and responsibly store waste, is a widely-cited, effective intervention in reducing human-bear conflicts. A “conflict” only exists in the first place if a resident views it as such, Garshelis noted, and educating people about the nature of bears can also make them more tolerant of sightings. Generally, black bears are more of a nuisance than a threat, with fewer than one death per year by black bears, on average, in all of North America.
Bear Wise, a NCWRC community-based educational program spanning 15 southeastern states, is designed to reduce conflicts with bears. Stanback said it was “by far the best program to eliminate human-bear conflicts in and around cities.”
Lifting the hunting ban is a part of an integrative approach along with this educational resource and strategies to improve food storage in the sanctuaries, according to the NCWRC. Stanback said lifting the hunting ban may restore bears’ fear of humans in backcountry areas. However, opponents argue hunting in backcountry areas will not target the so-called problem bears involved in residential sightings.
The agency cited a 2005 survey in which over 70 percent of residents in the affected region supported regulated bear hunting as a means of controlling population growth. However, opponents cite a meeting about the proposed changes in which 86 percent of the public voted against lifting the hunting ban.
Human-bear interactions are influenced by many factors besides population size, like the annual food supply. As a result, killing bears through hunting might not prevent hungry bears from roaming into residential properties.
“Increasing hunting in an area where you have problem bears will never solve the problem if you don’t address the problem itself, which is bears easily being able to get food from residents,” Lea said. “There will just be new bears to come in as the old bears fade away.”
Bears, although solitary in nature, are aware of neighboring bears dying and shift their behavior accordingly to avoid targeted areas, Garshelis explained. The bears that are habitually involved in conflicts are also more likely to be killed in hunts because they are more likely to investigate baits. Hunting therefore may be an effective way of controlling population growth, either through learning or a means of artificial selection, he added.
Other, non-lethal means of reducing population growth like sterilization are possible, but this strategy can be difficult to implement and ineffective. Electric fencing installed around food sources has also been shown to successfully prevent human-bear conflicts.
In Canada’s Bow Valley, people have coexisted with grizzlies without hunting them since the 1980s. Within an hour outside of Calgary, human-bear interactions have been successfully managed by cleaning up garbage areas, installing bear-safe trash bins, passing bird feeder bylaws, and replacing apple trees in public areas with other flowering trees. A wildlife corridor, which provides space for bears and other wildlife to roam with increasing habitat fragmentation, was also built.
Another approach is to allow bear populations to increase until they begin to self-regulate. This could lead bears to compete for space or food at a certain point, causing them to spill over even more frequently into residential properties.
“Some people would argue that we’re not the gatekeepers for any of these species and they should be able to do their own thing,” Garshelis said. “But we have manipulated the world so much that there isn’t anything natural about it anymore. There are very few places in the entire world where bears can live without human intrusions or some interaction with people.”
Elizabeth Hlavinka covers health, climate, and those most vulnerable to their respective crises.