Even with hunters allowed to take black bears over bait for the first time, North Carolina’s 2014 harvest didn’t increase. In fact, it declined.

Hunters tagged 2,521 North Carolina bruins last season, 16 percent fewer than in 2013’s record-breaking harvest, but consistent with earlier seasons.

Colleen Olfenbuttel, a biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission who oversees the black bear program, said a huge acorn crop last fall that dropped the deer harvest precipitously, was probably the biggest factor in the lower bear harvest.

“This past season we had a mast crop that was unprecedented, the second-largest in 20 years,” she said. “When you have that, it doesn’t matter what you put out for bears. They’ll choose acorns over bait every time.

“Bears didn’t have to move around a lot. They could sit in one spot and eat to their hearts’ content. This was especially true in the mountains, where the harvest was down 50 percent.”

Olfenbuttel said it will take data from several years to determine how much legalizing hunting bear over bait last fall will affect the bear population.

“We actually need three seasons to account for fluctuations in natural food sources. Natural foods account for huge fluctuations in bear harvests,” Olfenbuttel said. “But we didn’t see any major red flags from baiting.”

As usual, counties in the coastal plain accounted for the most bears taken: 1,867. Hunters in the mountains took 634, down from 1,207 in 2013. In both areas, hunters were allowed to bait with natural foods during the first six days of bear season. In the Piedmont, where hunters could bait the entire two months of gun seasons, only 20 bears were tagged.

Hunters who used dogs to hunt bears accounted for more than two-thirds of bruins taken. In coastal counties, they took 1,174 bears compared to 692 taken by still-hunters. In the mountains, hunters took 544 bears in front of dogs; only 90 were taken by still-hunters. In the Piedmont, 15 of the 20 bears taken were taken by still-hunters.

The Commission’s data does not indicate which bears were taken over bait, Olfenbuttel said, but it may be able to in the future.

Nine of the top 10 counties in the harvest were coastal counties, headed by Hyde County’s 253 bears. Beaufort County was second with 200, followed by Tyrrell with 156, Jones with 133 and Bladen and Washington counties at 103 and 102, respectively. Graham County hunters took 77 bears, putting that county eighth in the harvest standings.

Olfenbuttel said that hunters in coastal counties didn’t appear to be shooting the first bear they saw.

“I noticed coastal hunters were more selective in choosing a bear,” she said. “In the past, by the first or second day, people would kill bears, but I was in Hyde, Terrell and Washington counties, and we had no teeth to pull after three days. I don't know if that applied to all hunters, but they were very selective.”

Olfenbuttel, who didn’t expect a large Piedmont harvest, said the top county in that region was Person County, where hunters tagged eight bears.

“The first Piedmont bear I know (about) was killed by Vance County bear-dog hunters,” she said. “I thought (hunters) might take a few more, but it could reflect fewer bears or a lack of (hunting) interest.”