A decades-long ban on bear hunting in parts of North Carolina has been overturned by the state’s wildlife resources commission, in a move that has sparked outcry from local residents and American animal rights groups.
The North Carolina commission voted to allow bear hunting in three bear sanctuaries, encompassing an area of 92,500 acres of mountainous forest in the southern US state. The sanctuaries, established to protect and preserve North Carolina’s black bear population, are set to open to hunters later in 2022, despite thousands of people signing a petition against the move.
Bear hunting has been banned in North Carolina’s Panthertown-Bonas Defeat, Standing Indian and Pisgah Bear sanctuaries since 1971. The number of black bears in the state has since grown from fewer than 1,000 to about 25,000, according to the wildlife commission.
In a January public hearing, the commission said the US Forest Service, the federal agency that oversees America’s 154 national forests, had requested that hunting be allowed in the three sanctuaries “due to increased human-bear interactions”.
The commission voted in favor of the proposal in late February, in defiance of opponents who say hunting will not reduce human-bear encounters.
“It will definitely not target the actual bears involved in the original complaint of ‘increased bear-human interactions’,” said Bill Lea, a North Carolina-based nature photographer and retired US Forest Service assistant district ranger.
“Instead, the plan will target many of the younger bears who have just started life on their own away from their mothers and who have not yet developed the skills to elude the packs of vicious dogs and hunters. The indiscriminate killing of bears never addresses the problem of individual bear behavior.”
The American black bear is native to North America, where it can be found across Canada and in much of the western and eastern US, including North Carolina, California and New York. The bears, which can weigh up to 660lb (300kg), are omnivores who are normally wary of humans, but can develop a taste for food designed for humans if it is left easily accessible.
A petition, addressed to the wildlife commission and signed by almost 8,000 people, said it was mostly humans who are to blame for bear encounters.
“We as humans need to address and acknowledge that our actions are changing bear behavior and causing conflicts. Managing our habits, understanding how they impact bears, and adjusting our activities will solve bear-human, not hunting,” the petition said.
Friends of Panthertown, a non-profit group which protects and maintains parts of the Panthertown-Bonas Defeat bear sanctuary, said 2,744 people had commented on the North Carolina commission’s bear hunting proposal, with 86% of people opposed to the changes.
“Bear hunting has no place in Panthertown,” said Jason Kimenker, executive director of Friends of Panthertown. “This is their natural, wild habitat. These forests are their territory. This is their home. We are the visitors here and we all have a responsibility to continue to protect the bears.”
Friends of Panthertown said human-bear interactions had dropped after it installed “bear-proof food storage vaults”. Local groups say they will continue to lobby against bear hunting, but as it stands hunters will be allowed access to the three huge sanctuaries this fall.
“I don’t think we would be fully human if we did not feel compassion for bears and other animals as individuals,” Brad Stanback, one of the members of the North Carolina wildlife resources commission, told the Asheville Citizen Times.
The commission did not respond to a request for comment. Peta was among the national organizations to criticize the move.
“Peta reminds the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission that bears are not living targets for gun nuts, that they can manage their own populations based on available resources, and that there are always humane solutions for dealing with real or perceived conflicts with wildlife,” the group said in a statement.
Animal protection groups said proper storage of food and scented items was the way to reduce encounters, along with better education about how hikers and visitors can prevent visits from curious bears.
“North Carolina cannot hunt its way out of human-bear conflicts as an excuse for a trophy,” Kitty Block, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said.
“Black bears are slow to reproduce and susceptible to overkill from both legal hunting and poaching. They provide vast benefits to their ecosystems, and destroying them instead of implementing proper solutions, is a disaster.
“If black bears are to survive and thrive, we must learn to adapt and share our world with them.”