MACON — As Georgia wildlife officials draft hunting regulations for the next two years, they will consider whether to change the rules for controversial Middle Georgia black bear hunts.
The first open hunt for these bears on private land in Bibb, Houston and Twiggs counties was held in 2011, when about 10 percent of the entire Middle Georgia black bear population was killed in one day. Two wildlife management areas that are the core of the bear’s habitat were excluded from the hunt.
In 2011, 34 bears were killed, all in Twiggs County near Tarversville. In 2012, 14 bears were killed, most of them in the same area but one in eastern Bibb, said Bobby Bond, a senior wildlife biologist and specialist on Middle Georgia’s bears for the Department of Natural Resources.
Both years, multiple bears were killed illegally, and at least half of those harvested were females. That concerned local conservationists and some game managers.
After all, Georgia has set out to protect this group of bears, by far the smallest of Georgia’s three bear populations. Partly to protect their home range, the state spent $29 million to purchase 10,000 acres of Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area in Houston County a few years ago.
And University of Georgia researchers are in the midst of a three-year study intended to better estimate the total size of the population, learn about cub birth and survival rates, and examine bear movements around the portion of Ga. 96 being widened.
As part of the study, 38 bears were trapped between the end of May and the middle of October, and 31 were fitted with radio collars, said Mike Hooker, a graduate student leading the research.
Many of the bears were caught in the same Tarversville area where most are killed during the hunts. And five or six of the bears shot during last year’s hunt actually were wearing the new collars, said Hooker and Bond.
Last year, UGA and DNR officials had said they expected to use preliminary results from the population part of the study to inform the bear hunting rules.
But those results won’t be available until at least late spring, Hooker said, about a month too late for the normal schedule of setting hunting regulations.
“I wish we could have started this (research) a year earlier,” Bond said.
John Bowers, the DNR’s game management chief, said the DNR will draft regulations in the next few months and a public comment period, including public meetings, will be held in April. If some bear-population results arrive before the DNR board sets final hunting regulations in May, Bowers said, it’s possible the bear-hunting portion of the rules could be revised.
“But I don’t suspect we’ll have information that much different from what we have in hand,” he said.
Bond said the DNR will draft the rules based on the last two hunts, the biology of the species and public comments.
Bowers summarized the comments about bear season that the DNR had received:
• Five commenters asked to limit bear hunting through the use of bear tags, like a quota hunt;
• Four commenters asked for a more regulated bear season using quotas;
• Three commenters asked for the length of the bear season to be extended;
• One commenter asked for the bear season to run about six weeks, concurrent with primitive weapons deer season;
• One commenter asked for Bleckley County to be included in the hunt area;
•And one commenter asked that the hunt be moved to December.
“Regardless of what we do, there’s going to be a good number of people that’s not happy,” Bond said.
John Trussell, a Houston County outdoors writer and founder of Save Oaky Woods, has argued for switching to a quota hunt until the bear study draws clearer conclusions about the size of the bear population. He suggested it also would reduce the incidence of illegally hunting bear over bait.
During each of the last two bear seasons, two bears illegally were shot over bait. Those included the largest bear harvested each year, said Cpl. Robert Stillwell, DNR game warden for Twiggs County. All of the six tickets written for shooting bear over bait in 2011 resulted in convictions, he said. Such tickets can involve up to $3,000 in fines and restitution.
Bond said in 2012, the DNR issued three tickets to bear hunters, including two for bears killed over bait and one for the harvest of a bear that was smaller than the 75-pound lower limit.
Illegally killed bears are confiscated. Stillwell had a taxidermist mount the largest bear shot illegally in 2011 and donated it to Houston County High School, whose mascot is a bear, at the school’s homecoming last fall.
DNR officials said various factors may have contributed to the lower bear harvest last year.
Bond said a great acorn crop last fall may have made the bears less susceptible to baiting. And the number of bears killed in the Tarversville area in 2011 may have simply reduced the number available there, Trussell said.
Stillwell said he thinks the harvest was lower due to a combination of the publicity over the 2011 bear hunt and the extensive presence of game wardens.
With the help of a handful of other wardens, Stillwell spent the week before the hunt identifying 30 to 40 areas in Twiggs County where he suspected hunters might be preparing for illegal bear kills. (He also used some of the UGA bear collar data to identify spots bears were hanging out that might coincide with bait.) He traveled on foot, ATV and even helicopter looking for bear traps, bait and anything abnormal.
On the day of the hunt, about 10 wardens, plus canine units, patrolled and conducted three different roadblocks looking for any signs of illegal hunting. A canine unit helped identify one of the places where a deer had been killed over bait, Stillwell said. Another bear was killed over bait at a place Stillwell had scoped the week before, and the baiting was confirmed by trail cameras.
Bowers said the DNR recognized after the first hunt that further law enforcement was needed.
“I think the drop was because some folks were aware of the increased law enforcement presence and acted appropriately,” he said.
Hooker said researchers are already learning more about the bears’ behavior around Ga. 96, which is being designed to have wildlife corridors for the bears when it is widened. Hooker said many bears seem to see the highway as a boundary to their range, but one female crossed the highway often, and others did so several times.
Last year there were also seven Middle Georgia bears killed by vehicles, and not all on Ga. 96. (One, for example, died on Interstate 16 near Macon.)
This winter, another graduate student will be working on finding where female bears have made their dens and trying to get information about cub birth and survival rates. DNA samples from the cubs will also help with the study of the population size.
Hooker said the bears seemed “pretty lean” last year, with the biggest females running from 130 to 140 pounds and the biggest males weighing in between 250 and 300 pounds.
Hooker said he was pleased with the number of bears that were collared last year but disappointed that about half the collars have been lost. Twenty of the collars had global positioning capabilities that could allow researchers to track the bears’ movements around Ga. 96 almost in real time.