The nearly 600-pound bear Phillip Gosnell killed last month in Greenville County gave him an experience he won’t forget anytime soon.
It took three shots to bring the animal down, with the big male finally falling after it charged Gosnell in a clearing. Now, Gosnell plans to mount the animal’s head and arms in his home to remember the adventure.
“It was exciting,” Gosnell said. “When he’s coming at you, it is an adrenaline rush for sure.”
Gosnell was among S.C. hunters who killed a near-record number of bears in the mountains this fall during the state’s controversial bear-hunting season.
Hunters brought down 108 bears, including the 597-pound behemoth that Gosnell shot Oct. 19 near the Greenville-Spartanburg county line. The number of bears killed by hunters was the second highest since the state Department of Natural Resources began keeping harvest statistics in 1970 – and more than double the number killed in 2016.
Gosnell’s bear was one of the largest ever shot during bear-hunting season. The state record is 609 pounds.
This year’s bountiful bear harvest raised concerns from a leading animal welfare group, which says bear hunting is a cruel sport that one day could threaten the state’s limited population of black bears. South Carolina has an estimated 1,200 bears, with the greatest concentration thought to be in the mountains.
“We have concerns because bears are a long-lived, slow-to-reproduce species, so if they are overhunted, you can pummel a population,” said Wendy Keefover, native carnivore protection manager for the Humane Society of the U.S.
The Humane Society doesn’t oppose all hunting. But it says shooting bears often amounts to little more than a big-game sport, in which hunters are more interested in trophies than killing for food.
More and more bear-people conflicts
Sportsmen and state wildlife biologists say the annual two-week hunt, which ended Monday, is a tradition that helps prevent bears from overrunning the countryside where people live. The state’s bear population appears to be expanding from the mountains into other areas of South Carolina, state wildlife managers say.
“We are having more conflicts between people and bears in urban areas,” said Tammy Wactor, a biologist with the Department of Natural Resources. “These hunts are a very important management tool, the only real way to deal with the population.”
Wactor said a good example is at Furman University, south of the mountains just outside of Greenville, one of the state’s largest cities.
As many as five bears might be living in the immediate area, including one that loped through the campus this year, she said. Many are attracted by bird feeders or other food sources in nearby neighborhoods.
This year, hunters had more success bagging bears because the bruins couldn’t find enough of the nuts they love to feed on, Wactor said. That forced the bears to become more active in their search for food, making them easier targets for hunters, the biologist said.
“The more they are moving, the more they are going to go across somebody’s” path, Wactor said.
The 597-pound giant
Black bears are bashful, elusive creatures that, typically, do not bother people. Adult male bears in South Carolina range from about 150 pounds to more than 600 pounds. Since 1970, S.C. hunters legally have killed more than 1,000 black bears during hunting season, according to DNR statistics.
South Carolina’s mountain bear-hunting season is held each year during the last two weeks in October. Hunting is allowed only in Greenville, Pickens and Oconee counties, which have virtually all of the southern Appalachian Mountains in South Carolina. The state also has a coastal hunting season in the Myrtle Beach area, but bear harvests typically are much lower than in the mountains.
One oddity about this year’s mountain season is how the bears were killed.
In most years, hunters kill most of the bears in the mountains after hounds track them through the woods. This year, however, so many hogs were in the area, rooting for the limited acorn crop, that hound dogs began to chase pigs, making it harder to locate bears, Wactor said.
As a result, more than half of the 108 bears killed this year were taken during “still’’ hunts, times when sportsmen are not allowed to use dogs to stalk bears.
That was the case with Gosnell’s hunting experience.
After hearing from an uncle that a big bear was near his home in northeastern Greenville County, Gosnell walked to the area for a look. After scouring the countryside, he spotted the big bear in a cleared area near a power line.
The bear he killed was the largest harvested this year in South Carolina, which was evident when Gosnell and friends tried to haul the animal away in a pickup truck.
“Four of us tried to load him up, but we couldn’t,” Gosnell said. “So we went to get a tractor.”