This article received the Pinnacle Award from the Professional Outdoor Media Association in the Conservation Category at the organization’s annual conference in August 11 - 14, 2010. It is one of the highest honors a hook-and-bullet writer can receive. The award was sponsored by Mossy Oak.

It appeared in Wildlife in North Carolina in the magazine’s November 2009 issue.

Bearing Responsibility
By Mike Marsh

Black bears were once considered to be nuisance animals. The largest predators in the state, bears caused severe damage to crops and orchards. They also occasionally took pigs, calves and other livestock. Back in the day, a farmer or settler figured the only good bear was a dead bear.

But the turnaround in the status of black bears has been absolutely remarkable. While bears are still the culprits in a large number of nuisance complaints, occurring mostly in the mountains where new subdivisions are cropping up inside bear strongholds, they are now the state’s premiere big game animals. The restoration of the bear population to a modern legendary status envied nationwide has come through the teamwork of the technicians and biologists of North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and North Carolina’s hunters through the Bear Cooperator program.

Dale Davis is the commission’s Northern Coastal Management Biologist. Like many others in the commission’s wildlife management staff, he was in the market for hunter-harvested bears during the first week of one of the coastal region’s 2008 bear seasons. The state has six different bear seasons occurring in various clusters of counties. The bear seasons are based on the data that biologists like Davis have collected from hunters in the field.

“During the first week of any bear season, whether it’s in the mountain or coastal region, commission staff are in the field visiting hunters with their bear harvests,” Davis said. “We have a number of ways of contacting hunters and they also contact us. The bear line is open during the first week of any bear season.”

The “bear line” or “bear hotline” is the Bear Cooperator program’s communications link. Through a cooperative agreement with the commission’s Division of Wildlife Management and Division of Enforcement, during the first week of any bear season, any hunter harvesting a bear can call the wildlife violations reporting telephone number (800-662-7137) to report the harvest. The Enforcement Division’s dispatcher relays the call to personnel in the Wildlife Management Division, who in turn contact commission field staff via mobile phone. Where once radio communication was used to relay the information, mobile phone service is now the norm because most areas of the state, even remote mountains and coastal swamps that form the core of bear range, have transmitter towers for mobile phone communications.

Davis said some hunters contact him directly, but others have used former hunter-check stations for so long they still take their bears to those locations for the convenience of management staff.

“We divide opening weeks of the bear seasons into different days for each staff member who is working the bear-cooperator project,” Davis said. “I’m working today (Wednesday), taking the place of someone who worked bears yesterday and the day before (Monday and Tuesday). Either I or someone else will work these same counties on the remaining days of this opening week of the bear season. Rotating our management staff allows us to maintain the continuity of our other management activities. Hunting season is always a busy time of year for us. But sampling hunter-harvested bears is given an extremely high priority.”

Bear hunters were having good luck and calls were coming over Davis’ cell phone. Some of the calls were referred to other commission staff members when a quick consultation revealed they were closer to the harvest sites than Davis. But Davis continued to drive through his designated area in Tyrrell, Bertie, and Washington counties, traveling through territories frequently visited by bear hunters including several commission game lands. Davis received a telephone call directing him to his first site. But another staff member, Migratory Game Bird Biologist Joe Fuller, was already finishing with a bear taken by Tracey Conner.

“This was a big male bear,” Fuller said. “I’ve extracted both premolar teeth and weighed the bear and it weighed 540 pounds.”

The hunter was Tracey Conner of Creswell, who was hunting with her friend Troy Sutton. She had stalked the bear after spotting it in a farm field.

“I’ve been bear hunting for 7 years and this is my first bear,” Conner said. “I was happy to have the biologists come to see my bear. Now I know how much it weighed and I know the information they collect will help them manage bears.”

Management has different definitions to different people. On the one hand are the hunters, who want to maintain a high enough bear population density to provide them with good opportunities for success. On the other hand are landowners and farmers like Archie Spear, the owner of the land where Conner harvested her bear.

“I’m glad to have bear hunters like Troy and Tracey,” Spear said. “Bears are getting kind of thick around here. That’s a big bear and he got that big by eating corn, soybeans and wheat. That’s one bear I won’t have to feed any more.”

Davis received another set of directions to a harvest site. He contacted the hunters via mobile phone. After a 45-minute drive, he wound up at the hunting camp of Culley Wilson of Wild Wing Adventures Guide Service.

“We had a good hunt this morning,” Wilson said. “Several bears were seen. But most of the hunters decided to wait for bigger bears.”

One hunter who had waited long enough was Steve Hurd of Burlington. After congratulating Hurd and Wilson and exchanging other pleasantries, Davis received permission to sample Hurd’s bear.

“I’ve known Culley for a long time,” Hurd said. “I’ve always wanted to do a bear hunt. It was my third day in the same stand overlooking a cornfield. I saw one bear yesterday but I considered it too small. I watched it for an hour and 15 minutes. It was bigger than this one and probably weighed about 350 pounds. But today was different. Rain was forecast and I knew it would be my last chance for this year. When I saw this one today I decided to take it.”

Hurd’s bear was a female. Davis backed his pickup truck near the bear. The bed of the pickup held a frame and hoist. Davis used a hand winch to lift the bear off the ground and weigh it on a scale. The bear weighed 280 pounds.

Davis then removed both premolar teeth from the bear and placed them inside a small envelope with the identification information for the sample written on the envelope. He then performed field surgery on the bear and deftly removed the bear’s reproductive tract. The reproductive tract was placed in a bottle of liquid preservative. Davis wrote identification information on the label on the outside of the bottle.

Davis had a clipboard full of Bear Cooperator forms. He filled out a form for the sample, including the information gathered from the bear, the county of the harvest, whether the method of hunting was dogs or still hunting and the name and contact information of the hunter.

“I’ve always wanted a Bear Cooperator cap,” Hurd said. “They are really nice hunting caps.”

“Anyone who harvests a bear and allows us to sample the bear receives a North Carolina Black Bear Cooperator cap,” Davis said. “We mail the cap to them, along with information about the bear. The information we send to the hunter includes the age of the bear, which we receive from a laboratory that examines the premolar teeth. The reason we extract both premolar teeth is that sometimes examination of one tooth is inconclusive, or one of the teeth might be damaged during extraction.”

Commission personnel once took only one premolar tooth from a bear. They also once offered a fully camouflaged cap or a tee shirt to cooperating hunters. But hunters showed such a preference for the current style of cap, it is now the reward they receive.

“It has a camouflage bill and a hunter orange top, with ‘North Carolina Black Bear Cooperator’ and a bear inside a diamond similar to a bear sanctuary or game land sign,” Davis said. “It’s almost a mark of honor for a North Carolina bear hunter because the only way to get one is to earn one by cooperating with the commission to further our management goals for black bears.”

Davis received another call, sending him to a group of hunters who were hunting with hounds and had taken a bear in Hyde County. They had transported it to closer location where Davis could meet them.

The successful hunter was Jim Copland of Burlington. Copland was already wearing a Bear Cooperator cap when he helped Davis weigh his bear, a 280-pound female. “I’ve taken 16 black bears in North Carolina, other states and in Canada, as well as a Kodiak brown bear and a grizzly bear,” the 68-year-old Copland said. “Bear hunting is one of the most exciting sports in the world. To ensure the future of such a wonderful outdoor pursuit, I’m always more than happy to have biologists like Dale Davis sample any bear I am fortunate enough to harvest. It wasn’t that long ago when there weren’t very many bears in North Carolina. Thanks to science and sound management bears and bear hunting will be around for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.”

Davis removed the reproductive tract and premolar teeth from Copland’s bear as he had done with Hurd’s bear. He then completed the form with the identifying information.
Colleen Olfenbuttel is the commission’s bear and furbearer biologist. She receives, compiles and translates the bear harvest and bear cooperator program information.

“During the first week of any bear season, hunters who harvest a bear can call the commission’s Enforcement Division’s violations reporting line,” Olfenbuttel said. “But our sampling continues throughout bear season. After the first week, some hunters contact our local biologists who will make arrangements to sample the bears. But we also provide all the necessary materials to many hunters who know how to take samples themselves.”

Once the teeth and reproductive tracts have been obtained, they are sent to several universities where researchers cut the teeth into extremely thin slices so they can examine the growth rings inside the teeth with a microscope. The growth rings tell the age of the bear the same way the growth rings of a tree tell a forester the age of a tree. Bears experience periods of high food intake in the late summer and fall, followed by periods of lower food intake in winter and early spring and these periods of greater and lesser stress lead to changes in tooth growth rates. Females also experience stress during pregnancy and lactation. Thinner growth rings occur during stress periods. Examination of the reproductive tract tells whether the bear is pregnant and often how many offspring she may have borne in the past.

“We take the ovaries and fallopian tubes from female bears because they tell us two things,” Olfenbuttel said. “Examination of the ovaries tells us whether she was bred the previous summer. Examination of the fallopian tubes will show a visible scar if she’s reproduced in the past. Fallopian tube examination is not 100 percent perfect because the scars can fade over time. But usually, the presence of scars will give us an idea of her reproductive history.”

Using this data, Olfenbuttel said the commission has been able to track the age structure and reproductive status of the state’s bear population as a whole. The information shows whether the population is increasing, stabilizing or possibly decreasing.

“We have models that give us an estimate of the bear population,” she said. “The information obtained from bear hunters, through these models, helps us establish our bear hunting seasons. Except for foxes, bears have the greatest variability in hunting seasons of any game animal in North Carolina. Bears are slow reproducers, so their management is very different from smaller mammals such as rabbits and squirrels that have huge litters. Bears average having only two cubs every other year, so we have to be careful how we manage them. We don’t want too much mortality or it could create a population decrease. We’re very conservative in what we recommend to avoid over-harvesting our bears.”

Since the cooperator program began in 1969 through the 2007 hunting season, 17,212 bears were sampled. While the lion’s share of samples come from hunter harvests, approximately 10 percent have come from automobile kills. Olfenbuttel said the commission obtains samples from approximately 50 percent of hunter-harvested bears in the mountains and approximately 40 percent of hunter-harvested bears at the coast. This database is so large it is considered the best bear reproductive data in the world. Not only does this information help safeguard the bear population, it could also be used to defend the state’s bear hunting seasons in the event anti-hunting groups were ever to challenge the viability of North Carolina’s bear population as has occurred in other states.

The bear data collected shows the population and range of bears is still increasing in North Carolina, resulting in a new season in 2008 for Greene, Pitt and Lenoir counties. Olfenbuttel said 22 bear harvests had been reported unofficially, before all results had been officially tallied for the 2008 hunting seasons.

“Based on the presence of breeding females in our samples bears now occupy 45 percent of the state,” Olfenbuttel said. “We estimate the coastal population to be 9,000 to 12,000 bears and the mountain population at 2,500 to 4,500 animals and occupied bear range is estimated to be more than 10 million acres. When our bear restoration efforts began in 1970, there were only 4,000 bears occupying about 2.5 million acres. Bears have proven very adaptable to changes in the environment in North Carolina over the past 30 to 40 years. Our bear sanctuary system and our hunting regulations have certainly helped them. But bears have mostly helped themselves by adapting to an increasingly urbanized landscape. The biggest example is the gated communities in the mountains, where bears live among the houses. People who aren’t used to seeing them complain of bears in garbage cans, bird feeders and eating pet food. People must learn to remove food sources so they can coexist with bears.”

The state’s system of designated bear sanctuaries encompasses 392,446 acres. In addition many parks, watersheds, other state and federal lands and private landowners who do not allow bear hunting create another 2,232,300 acres of de facto sanctuary within areas of occupied bear range that are considered to be bear habitat.

“We have documented a bear sighting in nearly every county of North Carolina,” Olfenbuttel said. “There’s no breeding population in the Triangle area. But we recently had a bear killed by a vehicle at the Durham-Orange county line. Typically, these sightings outside occupied bear range are sightings of young males disbursing, searching for a female or a new home range.”

Bears have come a long way, from being extirpated from most of their original range to occupying nearly half the state, and now generating excitement with sightings that can occur almost anywhere. The state’s hunters can be justifiably proud, tipping their Bear Cooperator caps to themselves for their role in this stunning achievement.

“The bear cooperator program provides us with an enormous amount of information and it’s a very cost effective,” Olfenbuttel said. “If staff or a university tried to do the same amount of work, it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. We only spend about $130 per bear, which is a real bargain, and most of that cost is paid through hunting license fees. Our hunters manage our bears at all levels. Without them, we would have to find other funding and other ways of conducting bear research.”