With the 2018 Tennessee black bear hunting season in the books, hunters harvested a record 759 black bears last year breaking the previous record of 589 set in 2011. TWRA Black Bear Program Leader Dan Gibbs points towards a growing black bear population, a sparse acorn crop and good weather to account for the record setting season.
An increasing harvest trend over the last three decades indicates the bear population is growing. In 1988, hunters harvested a total of 76 black bears. That number soared to 370 in 1997 due to a sparse hard mast crop sending bears on the move making them susceptible to hunters. When 589 bears were taken in 2011, there was a mast failure of acorns in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park forcing bears onto national forests and private lands where they could be hunted. Last year’s sparse acorn crop sent bears moving again resulting in a new record harvest. Monroe Co.
hunters led the state taking 131 bears in 2018, followed by Cocke (123), Blount (93), Sevier (70) and Carter (52) rounding out the top five.
Other signs of an increasing black bear population are evident through re-colonization into their former range, including the Cumberland Plateau. As a result, TWRA created a new Bear Hunting Zone in several Cumberland Plateau counties and has seen an increase in harvest since the first archery-only season opened in 2014. In fact, archery hunters in Fentress Co. took 50 black bears with archery equipment this year alone.
More evidence of an increasing bear population is from the high volume of bear calls TWRA receives and responds to. Last year, TWRA wildlife officers in east Tennessee investigated over 1,000 incidents involving black bears. These incidents were widely varied - from general sightings and nuisance complaints - to aggressive behavior, property damage, intentional feeding, orphaned cubs and bears being struck by vehicles.
While it is hard to put an exact number on Tennessee’s total bear population, it is estimated at about 7,000 animals. TWRA is conducting a black bear population study with the states of Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and South Carolina to get a better estimate of bear numbers across the southern Appalachians. "We are basically utilizing a mark/recapture method to identify and estimate black bear densities," said Mr. Gibbs. The study, which should be completed by next summer, involves DNA analysis of bear hair collected from study sites.
Mr. Gibbs said that while 2018’s record harvest may stabilize bear numbers in certain areas, it will not stabilize the population as a whole and it will continue to grow, just at a slower rate. “Taking 759 bears out of a population of about 7,000 animals equates to approximately 11% of the total population,” he said. “It would take a harvest of about 20% to stabilize the population at its current level.”
Harvest reports and biological data for Tennessee's big game species can be researched online at:https://hunterstoolbox.gooutdoorstennessee.com