Public hearing set for New Bern on bear hunting proposed changes - WNCN: News, Weather

Public hearing set for New Bern on bear hunting proposed changes

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NEW BERN, N.C. -

Seeing a black bear walking around the neighborhood used to be unusual. But wildlife officers say it's becoming more and more common in our state.

"The amount of damage and the number of complaints we've received has substantially increased over the past few years," said Colleen Olfenbuttel, black bear biologist with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission.

Olfenbuttel says the commission wants to change hunting laws to keep the growing black bear population in check.

They're proposing to add a bear hunting season next year for about 30 North Carolina counties that don't have one, including Wake County.

They also want to expand the bear hunting season in other counties, such as Alexander and Iredell, and for the first time, allow bear baiting. That's when hunters attract bears with food before taking them down. In this case, the bait can only be unprocessed food such as corn and apples.

The proposed changes are not set in stone. There is a public hearing on them at 7 PM on Wednesday at the Craven County courthouse in New Bern.

"Bears, I don't know what I'd do if I see one staring back at me," said Tyra London, who lives a few doors down from where a bear raided the bird feeder of a family of five in Trent Woods last summer.

The Wildlife Resources Commission says human-bear encounters like these are on the rise in the East. In 1992, there were 12 encounters. In 2010, there were 90.

"I'm not a big person on like killing animals for fun or whatever, but if it comes to keeping people safe, then yeah," said London.

But not everyone approves of the bear baiting proposal. Bear baiting would be allowed for the entire bear hunting season in most counties in the Piedmont, and be allowed for the first six days of bear hunting season in eastern North Carolina.

"This is not a management technique. It's highly controversial. It has a potential for very public disapproval," said Richard Hamilton, coordinator of the North Carolina Camouflage Coalition.

Hamilton says bear baiting could increase bears' dependence on humans for food and increase their risk of communicable disease, but Olfenbuttel says there's no evidence that would happen.

"The way it's being done is, I think, in a very responsible manner," said Olfenbuttel.

Olfenbuttel says there are more bears in the East than in any other part of the state. She says they've killed farmers' goats, eaten their crops, and even broken into homes, occupied and unoccupied, to steal food.

The Wildlife Resources Commission is conducting 9 public hearings on their proposed changes. The last one is Thursday at 7 PM at Nash Community College in Rocky Mount.

There are between 17,000 and 20,000 bears in North Carolina, said Olfenbuttel. The bear population has increased three to six percent over the last 5 to 6 years, she said.

The bear population has significantly recovered in recent years. The population was once so low that it was almost added to the threatened species list, said Olfenbuttel. The population decline was because of overhunting and a disease that killed chestnut trees in the 1920s. Chestnuts were a staple of the black bear diet.

Bears cause mostly an agricultural problem in eastern North Carolina, where they eat wheat, corn, soybean, and peanut crops. One farmer in Hyde County had $80,000 worth of damage from a bear, said Olfenbuttel.

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