Members of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission voted unanimously at their Feb. 28 meeting in Raleigh to approve changes in bear baiting and hunting regulations for the 2014-15 season. The agency took six proposed changes to public hearings across the state in January, and for Thursday’s vote, they were lumped into one proposal, and a voice vote was taken with no objections raised verbally, so a 19-0 vote was recorded.

The decision drew immediate fire and questions from several corners.

“David Cobb (the director of the Commission’s Division of Wildlife Management) presented a graphic that showed 4-to-1 opposition — 80 percent against vs. 20 percent for — these rule changes, but they still voted for them,” said Greg Culpepper, a veteran bear hunter from Linville Falls who hunts bears with dogs and still-hunts. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.”

The proposals included one that allows the hunting of bears over non-processed foods (bait) on private lands for the first six days of bear season in coastal and mountain areas, and one allowing bears to be taken over unprocessed bait during the deer gun season in the Piedmont, which includes 39 counties.

Hunters who run bears with dogs largely opposed the changes at public hearings, feeling that the Commission's goal of a 25-percent annual harvest of bears could hurt the population.

Dick Hamilton, former executive director of the Commission and now director of the N.C. Camouflage Coalition, also didn’t like the changes.

“I don’t know why (the Commission) wants to kill 25 percent of the bears,” he said. “There are other ways — increasing bag limits, special bear permits or lengthening seasons — that could result in more bear harvests. The simplest thing to do would be increase the bag limit to two bears.”

In addition to Hamilton, two other former high-ranking Commission executives – former wildlife-management chief Hal Atkinson and former interim executive director Fred Harris – opposed the bear-baiting proposals, as did Tim Gestwicki, the chief executive officer of the N.C. Wildlife Federation, a private conservation group.

Culpepper said that Cobb had, at a public meeting, explained that there was no way to predict the effects the changes might have on the harvest. The debate, Culpepper said, that it was an “equity” issue that developed in 2007 when the Commission changed regulations to allow bear hunters to release their dogs around bait piles.

“Some people jumped on that and said it wasn’t fair to still-hunters because they couldn’t kill bears over bait,” said Culpepper, who said it was evident that most commissioners have no idea how bears are hunted with dogs.

“We don’t kill bears at bait piles,” he said. “We release dogs that chase bears; it’s what our dogs live to do. If the bear stops (to fight dogs), then we can observe the bear and see if it’s one we want to shoot or we’ll pull the dogs away and go look for a bigger bear. The 2007 law is used now to justify killing 25 percent of North Carolina’s — for equity — when there’s never been a fairness problem.”

Commission statistics show that the annual bear harvest in the mountains is divided approximately 60-40 with dog hunters taking 60 percent of the bears, and the harvest along the coast is divided approximately 75-25, with dog hunters taking the great majority of bears.

Culpepper said he feared now bear hunting would change to “bear harvesting.”

“Taking bear over bait will be like put-and-take trout fishing,” he said. “It’ll be like fishing with corn.”