When black bear hunting comes up in conversation, the inevitable trivia question will be: “In what year did a hunter take a black bear during Kentucky’s first hunts of the modern era?”
The answer could be 2010, if a hunter bags a bear the weekend of Dec. 18-19.
Last year, an early season snowstorm limited the opportunity to bag a bruin for the 372 hunters who bought permits for Kentucky’s first bear hunt in more than a century.
Another interesting fact is in three Kentucky counties a hunter, with all the necessary permits, could conceivably take a bear, elk and deer all on the same day.
Harlan, Letcher and Pike counties offer these opportunities. These three Kentucky counties are open to bear hunting Dec. 18-19 and are part of Kentucky’s 16-county elk zone, where a seven-day cow elk quota hunt begins on Dec. 18. The third weekend in December is also the last weekend of Kentucky’s nine-day late muzzleloader season for deer, and hunters in these three counties can take deer of either sex Dec. 17-19.
“We wanted our first bear hunts to be late in the season to gauge hunter participation and success, while limiting the harvest of females,” said Steven Dobey, bear program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “Females den earlier than males, and we wanted to concentrate the harvest on male bears.”
The return of a hunting season for black bears in Kentucky is a wildlife management milestone. In the early 20th century, most big game animals had disappeared or were at historically low population levels. Today, all the state’s native big game species, except for bison, have increased to huntable population levels.
The American black bear (Ursus americanus),
once abundant throughout much of Kentucky, was nearly absent from the state by the early 1900s.
Black bears hung on in the remote forests of southern Appalachia and made a comeback throughout the region. Today, they are the most abundant and widespread of all eight bear species in the world.
In Kentucky, it took about 25 years for natural range expansion to establish a bear population, not by a planned restocking effort. Male bears arrived first, followed by sows that eventually produced cubs. Bears re-colonized eastern Kentucky’s mountain region from the neighboring states of West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee, where bear populations remained viable.
Dobey said Kentucky appears to have two distinct populations of bears — the Pine Mountain population and a second population in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.
“The bears in Harlan, Letcher and Pike counties are genetically similar to bears in West Virginia and Virginia, and the McCreary County population is more genetically similar to bears that were transplanted into Tennessee from the Great Smoky Mountains,” Dobey explained.
Bears now have access to large chunks of quality forest habitat in Kentucky since timber stands have reached maturity after being cut about a century ago.
As a result, Kentucky has a resident bear population that is only going to get bigger and more visible with time. In the late 1990s, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife would typically receive about 20 to 30 reports a year of bear sightings. The numbers swelled to hundreds a year a decade later.
“The population has shown phenomenal growth from only a decade ago. We’ve been monitoring this population and have been involved in research with the University of Kentucky for almost 10 years. Based on our research efforts, it’s clear that Kentucky’s bear population can support a sustainable harvest,” he said.
Natural reproduction by bears in Kentucky has been documented since the early 2000s. “The other driving force in establishing a bear season was public interest and support from sporting organizations in Kentucky,” Dobey said.
The harvest quota for the 2010 season is 10 bears total — or five female bears — whichever limit hunters reach first.
Dobey said most female bears were already in their dens for the winter, with some denning as early as October, based upon information from radio-collared bears.
The bag limit is one bear per hunter. The hunt is open to any Kentucky resident who has a valid bear hunting permit and hunting license.
Successful hunters must take their bear to one of the check-in stations set up in each of the open counties.
Biologists will weigh the bears, take body measurements and biological samples for research, and attach a carcass tag to each harvested animal. Hunters must also Telecheck their bear before leaving the check station.
Hunters may not take female bears with cubs or bears weighing less than 75 pounds. A 75-pound bear is about the same size as an adult Labrador retriever. Baiting is prohibited, including garbage used as bait. For example, hunters may not shoot a bear feeding at a garbage can or dumpster.
The Hensley-Pine Mountain Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is closed to bear hunting, and a 12,500- acre area surrounding the WMA is open only to landowners, their spouses and dependent children hunting on their own property.
Portions of 10 public hunting areas are open for bear hunting, though hunters should consult maps to ensure they hunt only within Harlan, Letcher and Pike counties. There are 29,651 acres of public land open to hunters within the three-county bear zone.
Hunters must have landowner permission to hunt or retrieve downed bears from private land, and hunter orange clothing is required for all bear hunters regardless of what hunting equipment they use.
Most Kentucky hunters have never taken a bear. However, hunters can use some of the same hunting strategies they use for deer. Both tree stands and ground blinds are effective.
Hunters should begin by scouting ridgelines for acorns. In the fall and winter months, bears feed heavily, putting on weight before denning.
“Our department mast survey indicated a bumper crop of acorns, especially in eastern Kentucky,” said Dobey. “Male bears can almost double their weight from June to December, so there are surely some big male bears out there this season.”
In eastern Kentucky, mountain ridgelines hold the highest concentrations of acorns. Hunters should search for trails worn into the ground, paw prints, or claw marks on trees, as bears feed extensively in trees as well as under them.
“Our research clearly shows that bears restrict their home range size in the fall, when acorns are abundant,” said Dobey. “If a hunter finds bear sign in a location, that area is likely being used by many bears.”