MORRISTOWN, Tenn. — Just more than halfway through the 2018 black bear hunting season, Tennessee hunters have already harvested 551 black bears since the season opened Sept. 22. The record of 589 black bears was set in 2011.
TWRA Black Bear Program Leader Dan Gibbs points towards a spotty acorn crop this year to account for the high harvest. Simply put, the more that bears have to move in search of food, the more susceptible they are to being located by hunters. In 2011, biologists say there was a mast failure of acorns in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park forcing bears to leave protected areas and onto the national forests or private lands where they could be hunted. For example, Sevier County, which borders a large boundary of the GSMNP, accounted for about 20 percent of the total bear harvest that year. Gibbs also mentions that the high harvest so far this year reflects an increasing black bear population.
While it’s hard to put an exact number on the total number of bears in Tennessee, it’s estimated to be 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,” says Gibbs. Tennessee’s part of the study should be completed by the summer of 2019.
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 continues and has seen an increase in harvest since the first archery only season opened in 2014. In fact, archery hunters in Fentress County took 50 black bears with archery equipment this year alone. All hunting segments in the Cumberland Plateau area have concluded this year, however, a few hunts still remain in other Bear Hunting Zones in East Tennessee. One still hunt (without the use of dogs) remains from Nov. 17-20 in Bear Hunt Zones 1-3 followed by a segment with the use of dogs Nov. 26-Dec. 15 in BHZ 1; Nov. 26-Dec. 20 in BHZ 2 and Nov. 26-Dec. 9 in BHZ 3. The final segment of the 2018 black bear hunting season will be held Dec. 27-30 and is only open in BHZ 3. So far, Cocke County leads the state with 92 bears harvested followed by Monroe County with 89 and Blount County with 67.