Are bears over-running the countryside? State has plan to keep population in check

Bears are hunted each fall in South Carolina’s mountains and near Myrtle Beach. This bear was shot in the mountains.
Bears are hunted each fall in South Carolina’s mountains and near Myrtle Beach. This bear was shot in the mountains.

A healthy and expanding population of black bears has persuaded state wildlife managers to allow hunting in places where killing bears once was forbidden, officials said Friday.

The Department of Natural Resources will for the first time allow sportsmen to hunt bears outside of the mountains and along a sliver of the coast.

Spartanburg County, as well as the lower parts of Greenville, Oconee and Pickens counties, will be open for bear hunting later this month.

Not everyone likes the idea, saying bear hunting is cruel and expanding it is unnecessary. But state officials say adding new hunting grounds is justified.

“This additional opportunity is a direct result of the healthy and robust bear population in the mountains and upper Piedmont,’’ the DNR said in a statement Friday.

Tammy Wactor, a DNR biologist, said black bears are moving into areas outside the mountains, the traditional stronghold for the animals, and there appears to be enough of a population to allow hunting in more areas.

Statewide, South Carolina is known to have about 900 black bears, about 600 of them in the mountains. Most of the rest are on the northern coast near Myrtle Beach, the DNR says. But virtually every county has had bear reports in recent years, including Richland and Lexington. Bears were spotted in 2017 near Congaree National Park.

Black bears are typically shy creatures that forage on berries and nuts in South Carolina. On average, males reach 350 pounds, making them the largest land mammals in the state, the DNR says. But the largest bear ever recorded in South Carolina was 609 pounds, according to the wildlife agency.

The DNR averages about 300 nuisance bear complaints each year, Wactor said. Just this week, a bear was reported in a tree next to a drug store in downtown Pickens, creating a stir for local residents of the foothills city, according to a social media report and a local resident.

A 2018 DNR report shows rising numbers of encounters with bears in the mountains. The number of bears being hit by cars has risen from under five in 2004 to more than 30 in recent years in that area, records show.

Also, in the past three years, the DNR has received 230-350 reports of people encountering bears in the southern Appalachians, compared to about 100 in 2004-2005 in the area, the report said. Bears getting into trash cans and bird feeders are among the most common reports, the DNR study said.

Bear hunting is a traditional sport in the mountains of Greenville, Oconee and Pickens counties. But unlike in those mountainous areas, hunting had always been banned in the lower parts of those counties.

The sport also wasn’t allowed in Spartanburg County, which is adjacent to Greenville. In 2017, an Upstate man killed a mammoth, 597-pound black bear near the Greenville-Spartanburg County line during the October hunting season.

Randall Galloway, who has hunted bears for years in the South Carolina mountains, said the DNR’s decision to allow hunting in more areas only makes sense. He has friends in the southern parts of Greenville and Pickens counties who say they’ve had bears in their yards. Many of the areas are more developed.

“You have to expand it,’’ Galloway said. “The bears are coming to a lot of people’s houses, getting into their trash. If they don’t let the hunters come in and try to keep a hand on the population, it’s going to get bad.’’

Despite arguments in favor of more bear hunting, it’s a controversial sport that has drawn the ire of animal welfare groups and others. Critics say bear hunting is a barbaric trophy sport, that unlike deer hunting, is not done to put meat on the table — a point hunters dispute.

“The primary motivation for bear hunting is to take a picture of a dead bear or display the body parts, like a bearskin rug or mounting it on the wall,’’ said Wendy Keefover, carnivore protection manager at the Humane Society of the U.S.

Sportsmen kill an average of 61 bears each year in the mountains during the two week hunting season, but in some years, the number is substantially higher. In 2017, for instance, hunters killed 108 bears in the mountains, records show.

Officials with the Humane Society of the U.S. and the S.C. Progressive Network said having more areas where bears can be hunted is a bad idea.

Black bears don’t pose much of a danger to people and expanding hunting reinforces “the Wild West way of relating to the natural world,’’ Progressive Network spokeswoman Becci Robbins said.

The DNR’s plan does not change the traditional bear hunting season in the mountains, where hunting has been allowed for years. Hunters in those counties can hunt without dogs from Oct. 17-23 and with dogs from Oct. 24-30. The coastal bear season, near Myrtle Beach, runs at the same time.

In the new hunting areas, sportsmen can hunt bears without dogs from Oct. 17-30, although the season could end sooner. If hunters kill 20 bears before Oct. 30, the season will end, according to plans.

Wes Cooler, a Pickens County resident who has in the past had concerns about bear hunting, said he understands the DNR’s reasoning for adding the lower parts of Oconee, Pickens, and Greenville counties, as well as Spartanburg.

The important thing is that the DNR’s expanded bear hunting areas won’t allow sportsmen to use dogs to chase the animals, he said. Hunting bears with dogs often causes conflicts with property owners and it has been criticized as an unfair way of hunting. Sportsmen in the new bear hunting areas must “still hunt,’’ or stalk the bears without the help of dogs, according to the DNR.

“I can’t see any issue with this,’’ Cooler said. “Hunters don’t take a lot of bears during still hunts and you don’t have the social problems with dogs running all over the place.’’

Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment for more than 20 years at The State. He writes about an array of environmental subjects, including nature, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.