On Dec. 19, Kentucky hunters will make history. The first bear hunt in modern times will take place in Harlan, Letcher and Pike counties. The hunt is open to any Kentucky resident who purchases a bear hunting permit in addition to an annual hunting license, unless license exempt.
“The population has shown phenomenal growth from only a decade ago,” said Steven Dobey, bear program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “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.”
Black bears were nearly absent from Kentucky for about 150 years after intensive logging in the 19th century took away much of their habitat. They gradually made their way back to southeastern Kentucky from Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee as oakhickory forests matured once again. Kentucky’s bear numbers grew over time, as did public interest in a bear hunting season.
“The other driving force in this first bear season has been public interest and support from sporting organizations in Kentucky,” Dobey said. “In particular, the League of Kentucky Sportsmen played an important role in making this bearseas onar eality.”
“This season is particularly exciting because black bears are the first species to repopulate naturally in Kentucky,” said Rick Allen, president of the League of Kentucky Sportsmen. “I’m glad to see this season become a reality for Kentucky’s sportsmen and sportswomen.”
The bear harvest is limited to 10 bears total or five female bears, whichever limit hunters reach first. Most female bears are already denned at this time of year, which will limit the number of females available for harvest. Hunters must call Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s general information number at 1-800-858- 1549 after 9 p.m. Dec. 19 to check if the harvest quota has been reached. If the quota has not yet been reached, the hunt will continue on Dec. 20 only.
The bag limit is one bear per hunter. Successful hunters must take their bear to one of the check-in stations set up in each of the open counties. Locations are listed at the department’s webpage online at fw.ky.gov, or hunters may call 1-800-858-1549 during regular weekday business hours prior to the hunt for check-in station locations. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife biologists will weigh the bears, take body measurements and biological samples for research, and attach a permanent 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. Those boundaries are delineated in the 2009-10 Kentucky Hunting and Trapping Guide, available wherever hunting licenses are sold and online at fw.ky.gov.
Hunters may also read about all equipment, licensing, hunter education and youth supervision laws in this guide. Hunter orange clothing is required for all bear hunters regardless of what hunting equipment they use, as the season coincides with late muzzleloader deer season.
Most Kentucky hunters haven’t taken a bear before. However, hunters can use some of the same techniques they use for deer hunting. Hunters should begin by scouting ridgelines for hard mast food sources such as acorns.
“In the fall and winter months, bears have only one thing on their minds and that’s putting on weight for the winter denning season,” Dobey said. “They’ll concentrate their activity almost exclusively around food s ources.”
In eastern Kentucky, mountain ridgelines hold the highest concentrations of these food sources. Bears are predictable in their daily travel patterns. Hunters should search for trails worn into the ground, paw prints in leaf litter or even claw marks on trees, as bears feed extensively in trees as well as under them. Once hunters find a stand of acorn-producing trees and other signs of bear activity, they can set up tree stands just as they do for deer hunting. Ground blinds can also be used.
A bear’s sense of smell is even better than a deer’s, so there isn’t much hunters can do to cover up their scent. However, bears are also generally more curious than deer, as odors may indicate a potential food source. Since bears are trying to put on weight for winter denning, scent can actually work to a hunter’s advantage. Hunters should aim for the same vital area on a bear that they look for on a deer.
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. Excluding Hensley-Pine Mountain WMA, there are 29,651 acres of public land available to hunters within the threecounty bear zone. Hunters must have landowner permission to hunt or retrieve downed bears from private land.