Bear Boom

When weather is cool and wet as opposed to hot and dry, the ground holds bear scent better for dogs.

S.C.’s bruin hunters just want their dogs to have a good time. With a growing number of black bears, that may happen.

For Robert Chapman, it’s all about the dogs.

In 40-plus years of traipsing the mountains of Upstate South Carolina, he has shot only a handful of black bears, but that’s of little consequence.“For the most part, I just love to hear the dogs run,” Chapman said.

His dogs have been running bears more than ever during recent years, primarily because of an unprecedented number of bruins roaming the ridges and hollows of the state’s most rugged terrain.

As president of the South Carolina Bearhunters Association, Chapman couldn’t be happier.

“I spend a lot of time in the woods, and I see a whole lot more bear sign than I do deer sign now,” he said.

Chapman, 55, grew up near Table Rock — a well-known landmark at a mountain in the heart of bear country. He was primarily a deer hunter for many years “because we didn’t have many bears back then,” Chapman said.

Oh, how things have changed.

“For whatever reason, the deer numbers have gone down and the bear population has come way up in recent years,” he said.

This is good news for South Carolina bear hunters, who are afforded a narrow window of opportunity each October. Hunters take to the woods for a one-week still hunt in mid-October, followed immediately by a week-long “party hunt with dogs” that ratchets up the intensity and social aspects of bear hunting.

As many as 70 parties participate in the latter hunt, with the hunters relishing the chance to let their dogs stretch their legs in pursuit of the mountain bruins. Many hunters maintain large groups of dogs — primarily Plott hounds, treeing Walkers and blue-tick hounds — in order to be part of the hunt, and Chapman and the other 200-plus members of the Bearhunters Association are lobbying for more opportunity.

They don’t necessarily want more hunting, just more chances to run their dogs.

“That’s what we want,” Chapman said. “It gets disheartening to maintain your dogs all year and only get to hunt for one week out of the year. We’d just love to have a running season — a training season for our dogs.“

Bear hunting in South Carolina traditionally has been confined to a relatively small area — primarily the northernmost portions of Greenville, Pickens and Oconee counties at the extreme northwestern part of the state.

But bears have been busily expanding their range in recent years, as evidenced by the increased number of bruins seen on an annual basis in the suburbs of the region’s larger cities such as Greenville, Spartanburg and Anderson.

Complaints about “nuisance” bears have surged, which has prompted the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources to expand efforts to educate the public about how to deal with wayward bears. Invariably, the large majority of these roaming bears are young males that have been pushed out of their traditional haunts by elder bears and into back yards, where bird-feeders, garbage cans and pet food have emerged as primary targets.

“Our problem is not a bear shortage anymore; our problem now is educating people on how to live with bears,” said Skip Still, a DNR assistant regional wildlife biologist. “We do everything in our power to keep from moving a bear.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, if people remove the attractions — garbage, bird-feeders, etc. — the bears leave.

“In my opinion, when people move into an area where there are bears, they have a responsibility to those bears, and a big part of that is making your area bear-proof. The bears were here first.”

Hunting Strategies

Not surprisingly, bear-hunting success begins and ends with one word — food.

Although the bear’s diet changes with the seasons, ranging from yellow jacket nests and grubs early in the year to berries and other natural fruits by mid-summer, the fall hunting season coincides with the dropping of acorns. That’s when most bears get busy punching their meal tickets.

Feeding and fattening up for the impending winter, bears will target a variety of acorns, including white oak, red oak and chestnut oak acorns. Throw in hickory nuts — which longtime hunter Dennis Chastain refers to as “Pickens County peanuts” — and bears are typically content with a smorgasbord of hard mast.

However, in nature acorn crops fluctuate, generally proliferating in two- or three-year intervals. In the S.C. mountains and throughout much of the southeast, bears exhibit a particular preference for tasty white oak acorns.

“They’re like candy to a bear,” Still said. “A bear will walk miles through piles of red oak acorns to get to a good white oak tree.”

When it comes to the abundance of natural foods, hunters are faced with a true Catch-22. Hunters want there to be enough food to keep the bears healthy and happy, but not so much that the bears can essentially find food everywhere.

An overabundance of food makes it difficult for hunters to target specific areas where bears are spending a majority of their time.

If you’re fortunate enough to find a prolific white oak tree in the midst of a poor acorn crop, the odds are greatly in your favor. Bears will seek out these trees and remain there. Their sign — primarily in the form of scat — is a dead giveaway.

“If you find where the white oak acorns are, bear will be there,” Chapman said. “If the acorn crop is spotty, and you locate a good white oak tree loaded up, then you’ve got your honey hole.

“If acorns are scattered over the whole region, it’s going to make it a whole lot harder on the still hunters. It’s not as bad for the dog hunters because we can usually find a trail and put the dogs on it. But dog hunters and still hunters are going to be looking for the white oak acorns.”

For the first time, last year’s still-hunt harvest exceeded that compiled by the dog hunters. Chastain, who does both, said he believes an abundance of young bears had a negative impact on the numbers during the dog season.

“There were a ton of young bears out there,” Chastain said. “Still hunters can be more discriminating because they’re either seeing the bears or seeing the sign.

“A dog hunter has to go with whatever a dog smells. I heard about one party that ran six or seven bears before they finally ran a legal-sized bear.

“So I guess the fact that there are many more young bears out there is a good sign from a resource perspective, but it does make it a bit tougher on the dog hunters.”

The rarity of prolific white oak trees also played into the hands of still hunters, who were pretty much guaranteed of seeing a bear, as well as a variety of other wildlife, if they scouted and located a productive white oak grove.

“The white oaks were good for still hunters last year,” Still said. “But I think the dog hunters would have had a good year, too, if it hadn’t been so hot and dry.”

Indeed, weather is an important factor in hunting success.

“If it’s cool and wet, the (bear) scent lingers and creates better tracking conditions,” Still said. “If it’s hot and dry, it’s harder to find tracks to put the dogs on and the dogs don’t last as long.

“There were no mud holes, and the banks were dry and powdery, so it was more difficult to find tracks and trails. Hunters don’t have as much enthusiasm, either, when it’s so hot and dry.”

Faced with the realization the white oak acorn crop was poor last season, Chastain opted to concentrate his hunting efforts at a remote hollow that was laden with hickory nuts. He had scouted the area extensively, finding plenty of sign and actually hearing a bear crunching hickory nuts at first light. It proved to be an effective strategy.

On the next-to-last day of the still-hunt season, Chastain bagged a 375-pound bear as it moved in toward its hickory-nut haven.

“I knew right away that hickory nuts would hold the key to my season, and they did,” Chastain said.

Yet acorns remain the predominant predictor of success.

“White oak acorns are it,” Still said. “If we have them, the bears will stay. If we don’t, a lot of them will head elsewhere.”

Bears readily move back and forth between South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina because of the expanse of contiguous mountain terrain, particularly if one state boasts a better acorn crop. In other instances, other crops can come into play.

Three S.C. bears in excess of 500 pounds were killed in recent years, all in Oconee County, where the apple orchards and agricultural fields provide a substantial diet for the opportunistic bears.

In October 2000, Georgia hunter Darrell Lawrence bagged a corn-fattened Oconee County bear that shattered the previous South Carolina state record by 104 pounds. Lawrence’s bear weighed 594 pounds and was 6-feet, 6-inches long from nose to tail.

A Numbers Game

S.C.’s annual bear harvest is modest when compared to most other states, but one must keep in mind the hunting only takes place in portions of three counties.

The harvest progressed from single-digits in the early 1990s to a then-high of 20 bears in 1997.

Bear numbers really began to increase near the turn of the century. Hunters bagged 42 bears in 2000, and have averaged 33 bears per season in the five years since.

The all-time high was 55 bears during the 2003 season; hunters bagged 34 bears last season. These numbers are a negligible dent in the population which, by all indicators, is at an all-time high.

In the early 1990s, wildlife biologists estimated between 300 and 400 bears resided in the Upstate of South Carolina. But with population growth, territory expansion and better research methods, Still now estimates that number to be between 900 and 1,000 animals.

Still also said a growing population of bears is thriving at S.C.’s upper coastal plain. No bear hunting is permitted at this region — yet — but with an estimated 250 bears and automobile-bear collisions on the upswing, it could be a possibility down the road.

“Bears are doing extremely well — not just in South Carolina, but along the whole East Coast,” Still said.

Using scent-line surveys and a DNA survey in conjunction with several agencies and universities, Still and his fellow biologists have concluded the Upstate region’s bear population is at least one bear per square mile.

“And that’s based on research at an area that we considered to be one of our less-densely populated by bears,” Still said.

The Andrew Pickens Ranger District of the Sumter National Forest in Oconee County has “really seen a bear population boom,” Still said, as has northern Greenville County.

“Every indicator we have says our numbers are increasing and their range is expanding,” Still said. “Everybody I talk to — from hunters, to trout fishermen, to people on the street — says there are more bear now than they’ve ever seen.

“This pleases most people.”

It certainly pleases Chapman, who plans for 11 1/2 months for those cherished two weeks in October.

“People who say we don’t have any bears just need to get into the woods more,” he said.

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