FRANKFORT — Lawmakers won't agree to open a hunting season on Kentucky's "extraordinarily small population of bears" until a disagreement is resolved over how heavily armed the hunters should be.
Wildlife officials want to bar hunters who use old-fashioned muzzleloading rifles or bows and arrows from taking more powerful firearms along as backup. Some state lawmakers think that violates a constitutional right to bear arms.
State Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, said Thursday no vote will be taken on the proposed bear season until the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources resolves the firearms dispute.
Damron, an ardent gun rights supporter, said he has no problem with other weapons-related provisions of the proposed regulation, which bars Kentuckians from hunting bear with fully automatic weapons, tracer bullets and steel-jacketed ammunition.
The Humane Society of the United States, which opposes the proposed hunting season, has stayed out of the firearms fray, opting instead to stick to the argument that Kentucky has so few bears that people shouldn't kill any of them, no matter the weapon.
Pam Rogers, the Humane Society program director in Kentucky, said bears number fewer than 100 in the state by some estimates. That, she said, "is an extraordinarily small population and an unreasonably small population of which to allow trophy hunting."
Estimates vary widely on the number of the bears in a three-county area where wildlife officials want to open a two-day season next December. Wildlife Commissioner Jon Gassett told lawmakers earlier this week that there could be as many as 350 bears in the area. However, a previous study commissioned by the state put the number at between 90 and 130.
The state wildlife commission voted in June to open the season in Harlan, Letcher and Pike counties, which, if approved by lawmakers, would make Kentucky one of 28 states that allow bear hunting. The League of Kentucky Sportsmen had pushed for the hunting season, saying some black bears have lost their fear of humans.
Wildlife officers have received regular complaints of bears scavenging for food at campsites and homesteads. And at a state park near Prestonsburg last year, a bear held tourists at bay inside a cabin until rangers arrived to chase it away.
More than a century ago, bears thrived in Kentucky's mountain region, but over-hunting and habitat loss led to their disappearance. Over the past 20 years, they have been venturing back into Kentucky from the forests of neighboring states, including Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
Damron said he approves of the proposed bear hunt and expects to vote for it after the firearms dispute is resolved. He said he expects a resolution in time to have a bear hunt next year.
Rogers said that would be unfortunate for the state's small bear population.
"No state with a smaller or comparable population of black bears as Kentucky allows the hunting of these animals," she told the Administrative Regulation Review Subcommittee on Tuesday.
Rogers said New Jersey, with an estimated 1,500 bears, doesn't allow hunting, and neither does Florida, which has as many as 3,000 bears. Kentucky's relatively few bears deserve protection, she said.
"It was hunting that caused the black bear to be extirpated from the state a century ago, and only the cessation of hunting that allowed for the species' gradual recolonization," Rogers told lawmakers.
Gassett called the proposed two-day hunt "very limited." He said hunters wouldn't be permitted to put out bait to attract bears and wouldn't be allowed to pursue the animals with dogs. He also said that, if 10 bears were killed on the first day, the second day of season would be canceled.
Even with those limitations, Gassett said, the hunt has been a hard sale for non-hunters.
"This," he said, "has been one of the most controversial and contentious issues we've dealt with in quite some time."