Art Lander’s Outdoors: Changes to Kentucky’s bear season reflect expansion of population

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Major changes were made to this year’s black bear hunting season to reflect expanding bear populations throughout Eastern Kentucky.

In 2017, for the first time, the state’s two distinct bear populations will be managed in three zones. There will be a new muzzleloader season in the 22 counties of Zone 3, and nonresidents may now buy permits to hunt bears.

“Bear populations have been expanding for the past 10 to 15 years and will continue to expand,” said John Hast, black bear program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR). “In Zones 2-3, most bears are males. We can afford to harvest more bears and provide more hunter opportunity outside the core area (Zone 1).”

All, or parts for 47 Kentucky counties, will be open to black bear hunting in 2017, with a harvest quota of 50 bears. (Photo Provided)

In all there will be five bear seasons: Chase-Only, Quota Hunt with Dogs, Archery/Crossbow, Modern Gun and Muzzleloader. Each season will have different dates, and bear harvest quotas. All, or parts for 47 Kentucky counties, will be open to hunting in 2017.

In 2016, 16 Kentucky counties were open to firearms hunting with a harvest quota of 35. This season hunters may take 15 more bears, for a total of 50 for the season, with firearms hunting (muzzleloader only in Zone 3) in all 47 counties.

Bear Season Regulations

The bear season regulations for 2017 were recently updated online. To view all the season dates, harvest quotas and a map of the counties in the three bear management zones, click here.

Kentucky residents pay $30 for a permit to hunt or chase bears, $10 for resident youth to hunt or chase.

In 2017 non-residents will pay $250 for a permit to hunt bears with archery/crossbow equipment, muzzleloader or modern gun.

“Non-residents will not be eligible to chase bears or hunt bears with dogs,” said Hast, who became the department’s bear biologist in January 2015, but has worked in bear research in eastern Kentucky since 2006.

For the past three to four years about 1,000 bear permits per season have been sold, with about 20 people hunting with dogs.

Three Bear Management Zones

Here’s more details on Kentucky’s three bear management zones:

* Zone 1 includes four counties — Letcher, Harlan, Bell and McCreary.

“This is our core population, where most of the female bears are,” said Hast. “We’re managing Zone 1 conservatively, for the continued growth of the population.”

The Zone 1 counties are experiencing about a one percent growth rate a year, with an estimated 400 bears in Letcher, Harland and Bell counties, and an estimated 100 bears in McCreary county.

“These are two distinct populations,” said Hast. “They haven’t expanded enough to interchange to any significant degree. There is some breeding and some coming and going.” The two populations are separated by Whitley County and the Interstate-75 corridor.

All public land in McCreary county will be closed to bear hunting in 2017, but bear hunting in the county will remain open on privately-owned lands.

“It’s a good, healthy population in McCreary county, it’s just smaller,” said Hast.

* Zone 2, which has the most liberal bag limits, includes 21 counties.

“There’s lots of public land open to hunting in Daniel Boone National Forest,” said Hast, “with good bear habitat to the north, east and west of McCreary county.”

In Zone 2 the bear habitat overlaps with elk habitat. “Bears utilize reclaimed strip minded lands too.”

Zone 2 is bordered by Pike county to the east, north and west to Lawrence county, and south to Clinton county on the southwest.

* Zone 3 includes 22 counties.

“The population is expanding and we’re looking to the future here,” said Hast. “There are bears roaming through these counties in the summer, but in the fall, not all these counties may have bears that overwinter.”

One exception is the Red River Gorge area, where bears are present year-round.

“The northeastern counties of Zone 3 are most likely to have year-round bears,” said Hast.

The boundary of Zone 3 extends from Boyd county on the east, north and west to Lewis County, and south to Cumberland County on the southwest.

The Zone 3 counties are open to muzzleloading bear hunting only, during a nine-day season that coincides with the late muzzleloader deer season, Dec. 9-17.

Population Established by Range Expansion

Kentucky’s bear population was established by range expansion. In the 1990s, KDFWR began receiving reports of black bear sightings in eastern Kentucky. A native species, the American black bear (Ursus americanus) was once abundant throughout much of Kentucky. Place names such as Bear Tree Gap, Beargrass Creek, Bear Branch and Bear Wallow attest to the fact that bears were found wherever there were forests and suitable den sites.

But, by 1900, black bears were all but eliminated from the state. Extensive logging of forests in the mountain counties between 1870 and 1930, 150 years of unregulated hunting, and a lack of protected sanctuaries, almost spelled the end to a once abundant native species.

For more outdoors news and information, see Art Lander’s Outdoors on KyForward.

Region wide, black bears hung on in the remote forests of southern Appalachia, and began to make a comeback in Kentucky as forests matured.

In the first decade of the 2000s, reports of black bear sightings swelled from about 20 to 30 reports a year, to hundreds a year, with sightings in more than 54 Kentucky counties.

By 2009, black bears were well established in Kentucky — first by male bears, then sows, that eventually produced cubs. Bears re-colonized eastern Kentucky’s mountain region from the neighboring states of West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee, where bear populations were never extirpated.

“We know from GPS collared bears that bears are moving in and out of Kentucky all the time,” said Hast. “Some of the bears we collared have been taken by hunters in West Virginia and Virginia.”

Kentucky has two distinct populations of bears – the Pine Mountain population, and a population spreading out from the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area into southern Daniel Boone National Forest.

The bears in Letcher, Harlan, and Bell counties are genetically similar to bears in West Virginia and Virginia, and the southern population, centered in McCreary County, is genetically similar to the 14 female bears transplanted from the Great Smoky Mountains into Tennessee in 1996-97.

Black bears have been hunted in Kentucky since 2009. Last season hunters took 31 bears. The season record was established during the 2015 season, when hunters bagged 46 bears.

1Art Lander Jr.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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