By W. Spencer King
According to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the number of black bears throughout Appalachia has more than doubled in the last 20 years, and wildlife officials are debating the best course of action to deal with rapidly growing population and ensuing human interactions.
The issue rests in the delicate ecological balance that has been disrupted in the last 40 years due to strict hunting regulations and habitat destruction. Access to unprotected trash cans and litter entices bears to come closer to civilization more frequently, and as bears become more comfortable with entering human spaces, the risk of human harm increases.
Biologists in the Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee have placed GPS tracking collars on a number of bears to study their movements, hoping to discover where bears might be getting food that is habituating them to humans.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency in Polk County is attempting to address the problem by relocating bears to different areas, but officials from the agency have found it an inefficient, tedious and arduous process.
In the mid-1970s, bear sanctuaries were opened throughout the Appalachian region to protect the then-shrinking bear population. The decline was the result of overhunting, a practice that erased the native wolves, panthers, buffalo and elk, which were all once prominent big game species in southern and central Appalachia.
Yet increased hunting is among the proposed solutions, and North Carolina wildlife officials are tentatively debating increasing the bag limit for bears from one to two. The goal is to manage the population without sending it back into a declining trend, which officials hope to achieve through careful observation and planning.