The Tennessee Wildlife Association released record-breaking black bear harvest numbers for the 2011 season, but some local hunters didn’t share in the success.
Dan Gibbs, a wildlife biologist for the TWRA, says hunters in the Tri-Cities had an average year and didn’t necessarily get to contribute big numbers to the state total of 589 bears. Sevier, Monroe and Cocke counties took the top spots and had harvests of at least 80 bears apiece.
Carter County led the count locally with 49, followed by Sullivan with 26 and Johnson with 24. Greene, Unicoi and Washington counties had 21 or less.
“The thing about the bear harvest that you have to remember is that it jumps around from county to county,” said Gibbs, who oversees the bear harvest in region four. “It can be high and low. It’s a function of the mast crop.”
Hugh Lamb, president of the Tennessee Bear Hunters Association, says this was one of the worst seasons he’s encountered in the last 20 years.
“The bear just wasn’t here for whatever reason,” said Lamb, who hunts with dogs. “From Cocke County east and northeast, there was not any bears or any food source.”
The areas Lamb and a group of 20 or so people hunted had a less than satisfactory acorn and berry crop and very few hickory nuts. The group ended the season with nine bears, seven of which they killed on Buffalo Mountain and two in Monroe County. They also hunted on Unaka Mountain in Unicoi County, parts of Greene County and a few areas in Cocke County.
The group usually harvests about 25 bears each season that weigh between 300 and 400 pounds, but this year, Lamb said they had two that were up to their standards. The group had to hunt hard just to find ones that weighed at least 125 pounds.
The discouraging numbers have caused Jimmy Fincher to rethink his bear hunting habits. He’s considering taking trips to Wisconsin and Maine next season in hopes of faring better.
“It (this season) might have looked good on paper but it wasn’t for those of us out there hunting,” said Fincher, a board member of the Tennessee Bear Hunters Association.
Lamb accounts some of their troubles to the start dates of bear season for those who hunt with dogs, which he says begin too late after archery and other still hunters are given the go-ahead to search for black bear in late September. The first four-day dog hunt started Oct. 31.
“What few bear that we had, they had moved on out by the time dog season opened,” Lamb said.
Even though dog hunters get less time to trail bear, they accounted for about 81 percent of the bear harvest total in 2011.
“It’s a very efficient way of hunting,” Gibbs said. “They can harvest a lot in just a few days, compared to what you can do in archery season. ... One day of hound hunting is equal to about one week of still hunting.”
The decision to give still hunters additional time early in the season started four years ago as the result of many landowners reporting problems with bears coming out of the mountains and onto their lands during low-mast years.
“By opening that season it gave land owners and hunters an option to do something (about the nuisance complaints),” Gibbs said.
The four-year average of bears harvested in Tennessee is about 450. Gibbs foresees that number staying steady in the coming seasons, but one problem with recording an accurate black bear total is not knowing exactly how many were killed. By law, hunters are required to take bears to a check-in station so that information can be collected and reported to the TWRA, but that doesn’t always happen.
“You’ve always got non-compliance,” Gibbs said. “It’s something you deal with anytime with a big- game system. It’s the same with deer and turkey. You have to assume that non-compliance is very consistent from year to year. Our offices do makes cases on those.”
As the black bear population continues to grow throughout the Southeast, especially in the Cumberland Plateau and in parts of Florida, the landscape of bear hunting will change, too. Gibbs says a lot of things can make or break the season, including the food source, the weather and the movement of the bear.
“Those guys in the Tri-Cities had an average year,” Gibbs said. “Although we had a record, they didn’t get to contribute to that.”