Bears have become so populous over the past 10 years in southeast Kentucky that the state's first bear hunt in 100 years has been scheduled for this weekend.
As bears have become a sight-seeing attraction and sometimes a nuisance for state parks in Harlan, Letcher and Pike counties, local hunters have been eager to add black bears as a big game animal, said Steven Dobey, bear program manager for the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"Kentucky is kind of a unique spot in this region of the United States because they historically had not had bears in great numbers. West Virginia, Tennessee, Virginia have had bears for decades," Dobey said. "Their return (to Kentucky) has been in the grand scheme more recent."
Hunting this weekend will be difficult, said Rick Allen, president of the League of Kentucky Sportsmen, which pushed for several years to start a bear hunting season.
The area is fairly small, only 10 bears are allowed to be taken, and many bears hole up in their dens this time of year, Allen said. Also, dogs and bait are not allowed in Kentucky, as they are in other states' bear seasons. Expected snow might limit the number of hunters, he said, and much of the hunting area will be private land best known to locals, so not many out-of-towners are expected.
Dobey estimated that there are about 300 black bears in the core region of Letcher, Harlan and Pike counties, the only three open to bear hunting this year. The population is large enough to withstand hunting, he said.
The animals are a nuisance in some state parks and small towns. Kingdom Come State Park in Cumberland installed additional bear-proof trash cans in June, and four bears have had to be euthanized this year, an unusually high number. Park Manager Rick Fuller said he knows some city housing projects have installed bear-proof dumpsters and cans, too.
"This is something all the state parks across the southeast part of the state are going to have to deal with," Fuller said.
He said some people put out food deliberately to attract bears and get a glimpse of them. Not a good idea, he said.
"Basically, garbage isn't good for bears," he said.
Bears getting into garbage get used to being around people, and people don't realize how much damage bears can do to cars and property.
Three of the four bears euthanized this year were killed because they had become so used to people they were a danger, Dobey said.
"They're really interesting to watch and observe, however when people begin to use the food to lure them in ... it usually ends in the death of the bear," he said.
"It keeps people scared up a little bit," Cumberland police Chief Fred Davidson said.
He guessed that police get a couple of calls a week about bears in people's trash cans or yards. Some residents wondered if the bear-proof trash cans in the nearby parks drove the bears into town, but Dobey said that theory isn't correct. He said that bear-proof trash cans, which cost $600 to $900 per can, keep bears from getting accustomed to human food. Radio-collar tracking research has shown bears most often retreat to a more "natural" food source near the park rather than moving into town, Dobey said.
"This is a learning experience for this area. Nobody expected bears to come back," Fuller said.
Twenty years ago, no bears were visible in Kentucky, he said, but in the late 1990s, they started reappearing, having been reintroduced in neighboring states. Now they occasionally wander through towns in some Kentucky counties.
The hunt is exciting because of the healthy, booming bear population, Allen said.
"The bears have repopulated on their own in Kentucky," without human intervention, he said, "and that's a big deal right there."