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Bear hunters defend sport as mountain tradition, despite claims of cruelty

A small boat carrying a dead bear sputtered across Lake Tugaloo last week after a hunting party cornered the animal on a forested mountainside.

Shot and killed as it tried to escape a pack of hounds, the bear was hauled by hunters to the shoreline, dumped in the boat and ferried to a public landing. At the landing, a federal wildlife technician weighed the beast and made notes for the official public record.

What occurred Tuesday in Oconee County is part of a long-standing practice that draws plenty of criticism in South Carolina: bear hunting.

For generations people have hunted bears in the southern Appalachians, a region where folks once were dependent on bears to provide food for the table and source material for clothing.

But today the practice is increasingly scrutinized as critics question the need for bear hunting – and that sparks fierce resistance from hunters who say shooting bears is no different from harvesting other game.

While animal welfare groups say the sport is a cruel trophy hunt, more than two dozen sportsmen interviewed last week by The State newspaper said bear hunting is a mountain tradition they would hate to see stopped. Many learned about bear hunting from their parents and want to pass the experience on to their children.

“We really get treated like a bunch of outlaws,’’ said Pickens County hunter Randall Galloway, who had skinned three bears by Tuesday afternoon.

South Carolina’s mountain hunting season, which ends this weekend, allows people one week each year to kill black bears without the use of tracking dogs. During a second week – which is more controversial – hunters can use dogs with radio collars to find bears. Mountain hunts are allowed only in Oconee, Pickens and Greenville counties.

Bear hunters like Galloway said there are plenty of the animals to sustain the annual harvest, which last year totaled 92 kills in South Carolina’s mountains. All they’re doing is controlling the population, which is expanding across the state, they said. By Saturday morning, mountain hunters had killed more than 40 bears this year, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

“The bear hunters are doing the community a favor,’’ said the 46-year-old Galloway, who was born in Greenville, hunts in Pickens County and lives in Brevard, N.C. “If it wasn’t for the bear hunters, what would the bear population be like?’’

Some sportsmen said that instead of people pushing to ban bear hunting – especially with the use of tracking dogs – they should embrace the sport. It’s a clean activity that South Carolina should never abandon, they contend.

“We know we’re under pressure,’’ Oconee hunter Bill Moyle said as he stood on an overlook along S.C. 107 and listened to hound dogs chasing a bear in the distance. “A lot of states have already outlawed’’ bear hunting with dogs.

An official with the Humane Society of the United States was skeptical that there are enough bears in South Carolina to continue hunting. State wildlife officials estimate South Carolina has about 1,200 bears, most of them in the mountains. Many states have more. Colorado, for instance, has an estimated 19,000 bears.

Even if the bear population is growing, however, hunting bears with dogs should be outlawed, said Wendy Keefover, who tracks the issue for the animal welfare group.

“We are opposed to using dogs,’’ she said. “It is not fair chase. And we are opposed to trophy hunting.’’

Relying on dogs to chase bears tires the big animals so much that they can die from too much exertion, even if hunters don’t shoot them, Keefover said. The practice of tracking bears with radio-collared dogs also isn’t fair because the hunters have the edge – and it’s a nuisance to property owners whose land the dogs cross chasing bears, she said.

South Carolina is one of 18 states that allow hunters to pursue black bears with hound dogs, according to the Humane Society. Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee also allow hunters to use dogs, although restrictions vary from state to state, the society says.

Billy Dukes, regional wildlife chief for the state Department of Natural Resources, said he could not speculate on whether the season would ever be expanded or whether the sport should be banned in South Carolina.

Still, “it’s a biological fact’’ that the bear population is growing in parts of the state, he said. In recent years, bears have been sighted in most of the state’s 46 counties, including Richland and Lexington.

The estimated population in the mountains is anywhere from 600 to 900 bears, at least twice what state officials said existed there 20 years ago. On the northern coast, the population of bears is smaller, but considered large enough that wildlife officials also opened a hunting season there several years ago.

Black bears are shy creatures that typically do not bother people. Adult male bears in South Carolina range in size from about 150 pounds to more than 600 pounds. Since 1970, hunters have killed more than 1,000 bears in South Carolina’s mountains, including a record 127 in 2013, according to the DNR.

Guns, dogs and bears

Regardless of arguments against it, people who hunt bears love the sport.

Among them is Moyle, a 60-year-old carpenter who grew up in Walhalla. Hooked on bear hunting long ago, Moyle raised his 31-year-old daughter on the sport. Jessica Moyle said she enjoys bear hunting, not just for the harvest, but for the good times she has with her father and his friends.

“I grew up going to camps with my dad and I want my kids to do the same thing,’’ she said. “ I enjoy it as much as any guy.’’

The Moyles were part of the wave of bear hunters in South Carolina’s mountains last week. As is the case every year, hunters brought packs of yapping hound dogs and radios to communicate the whereabouts of the canines as they trailed bears. The mostly white male, blue-collar hunting crowd included many locals from South Carolina’s mountains, but also hunters from neighboring states. State wildlife officials said they didn’t expect any trouble because hunters are generally well-behaved.

Since 1986, the number of bear hunters registered during the dog-running season has more than doubled, reaching as high as 1,500 several years ago. In 2015, about 1,000 people registered.

Last week, groups of bear hunters walked mountain roads and busy highways, peering into the forest in their search for black bears.

Many worked together to keep track of bears they were stalking. Members of a group, or hunting party, would split up but stay in contact via walkie-talkie. Some monitored the movement of dogs wearing tracking collars. Others followed the dogs as they pursued bears. When a bear was cornered, usually by running up a tree, some hunting parties decided who would shoot the animal.

Near Lake Tugaloo, veteran members of one party allowed first-time bear hunter Marshall Sisk, 46, to fire at the bear on the mountainside. Sisk smiled when a U.S. Forest Service worker weighed the female bear at 220 pounds.

“I think I’m going to get the front part of it mounted,’’ said Sisk, a friendly welder from Toccoa, Ga. “That way it will be a trophy today and I can always remember it.’’

Sisk said he appreciated hunting with the party this year and was glad he made good on the opportunity. Some bear hunters spend decades looking for a chance to shoot bears in South Carolina.

Most of the 28 hunters The State newspaper interviewed last week said they like the sport for many reasons, aside from just killing bears.

At the end of each day, many went to encampments established in farm fields, creek bottoms and forests throughout the mountains. Some of the bear camps included huge tents filled with chairs and tables. Some of the bear dogs were kept in the backs of pickup trucks nearby.

Socializing with friends and watching their dogs chase bears is as enjoyable as shooting one, said most of the hunters interviewed last week by The State.

“I don’t care if I kill another bear, ’’ said Oconee County’s Tony Cantrell, who once shot a 500 pound beast at the bottom of a waterfall. “I like to camp out. I like to see the boys from Tennessee and North Carolina and all around. And I like to handle dogs.’’

Several miles away from where Cantrell hunted, bear hunters filled a camp overseen by Keith Stubblefield. At the end of a long and fruitless day of stalking bears, about a dozen hunters, including Moyle, gathered to share stories.

Laughter spread through the camp as the sky darkened and a campfire blazed. Friendly barbs flew like darts while the men sipped beer and prepared for supper.

But hunters also reflected on a sport they said brings people closer together.

“This is a brotherhood,’’ Moyle said. “It’s one thing we are able to do that we love. There are so few things anymore that are like that.’’

Moyle, Stubblefield and others said they favor extending the dog-running season for bears to more than a week, as some other states do.

Chris Lee, who works for a local school district, said stalking bears is a unique experience that needs preservation.

“I do no other hunting in the state of South Carolina or the United States,’’ the 42-year-old Walhalla resident said. “I look forward to it all year. It’s six days, rain or shine.’’

Many hunters dispute claims that killing bears is done only for the thrill of shooting big game. Most said they eat bear meat, which they called greasy but tasty. There’s nothing like a good chunk of bear meat for the dinner table, hunters said.

As he stood on a dirt road known as “The Stairs’’ off S.C. 107, Ricky Pelfrey said his family enjoyed dining on a 156-pound bear he shot several years ago near his country store.

“We eat the whole bear at one big meal,’’ Pelfrey, 56, said. “You use onions and celery with it – like a roast.’’

Clannish bear hunters

While most bear hunters interviewed by The State last week were friendly, some were wary of talking with the newspaper.

Bear hunting parties often are composed of hardened outdoorsmen who are skittish about inviting in folks they don’t know. And because the sport is criticized by animal welfare groups, some hunters worry that they’re being set up for a misleading expose or harassment by anti-hunting organizations.

One sportsman approached by The State said he was concerned about talking because of what he considered unfair treatment by the national media of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

At a camp near Long Creek, many of the bear hunters stared at journalists who approached them, walking away when asked how the season was going. The center of the camp contained two long tents made of blue sheeting. Inside, food simmered on a stove.

On the camp’s fringe, others associated with the group had set up their own tents, well away from the leaders. Young children played beside the campfire near their parents.

Roger Shirley, a longtime bear hunter who was not part of that camp, said hunting groups are “pretty clannish’’ and reluctant to accept outsiders.

“If you don’t know somebody, you are not going to just walk in and say ‘We’re going to hunt with y’all,’ ’’ Shirley, of Mountain Rest, said.

Even with tracking dogs, locating a bear and chasing it down can take most of a day. Unlike deer, black bears are adept at moving great distances across rough mountain terrain, making them more elusive as dogs chase behind, hunters said.

Sisk said the bear he eventually shot had run through ravines and over several mountain ridges before climbing a tree, only to dash away again.

Last week, Moyle’s hunting group focused its initial efforts on a section of Long Creek, a community of meadows, forests, apple orchards and waterfalls near the Chattooga River north of Seneca. But after the hunt proved fruitless Tuesday, the group moved east Wednesday toward Stumphouse Mountain and the Sumter National Forest above Walhalla.

All day, the party’s hound dogs chased a bear. Throughout the hunt, Moyle’s radio crackled with updates. Finally, as darkness fell, Moyle and his hunting buddies succeeded. One of them killed a bear near a state fish hatchery not far from the Chattooga River, Jessica Moyle said.

In Pickens County, hunters also killed at least two bears Wednesday near the Eastatoee Valley off S.C. 11, the well-known state scenic highway.

Late in the afternoon, excited hunters surrounded the carcass of a small female bear before it was loaded on a pickup truck and hauled to a camp associated with the S.C. Bear Hunters Association. At the camp, hunters also displayed the hide of a 372-pound bear that camp host Ralph Medlin had shot.

“My adrenaline was pumping so hard I felt like I was fixing to throw up,’’ said the 59-year-old Medlin, describing the emotion he felt when he shot the bear.

Ernie Magnelli, the 73-year-old hunter who shot the smaller bear, was matter-of-fact in assessing why he hunts them.

“It’s food for the table,’’ he said. “If you get nervous about it, you ain’t going to be able to shoot them. It’s interesting and fun. But it’s mainly about the camaraderie and getting together with the guys.’’

Photographer Gerry Melendez contributed.

Year

Mountain

Harvest

Bear hunters using dogs

Male

Female

Unknown

Total

2015

56

36

0

92

977

2014

23

39

1

63

943

2013

70

57

127

877

2012

42

41

83

809

2011

46

33

1

80

812

2010

18

17

35

864

Source: S.C. Department of Natural Resources

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