Proposal to expand bear hunting in Kentucky sparks debate

A 2-year-old male black bear wandered in Madison County. Research studies estimate there are about 350 bears in Kentucky, mostly in the eastern part of the state.
A 2-year-old male black bear wandered in Madison County. Research studies estimate there are about 350 bears in Kentucky, mostly in the eastern part of the state. Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Humane Society of the United States is objecting to a proposed expansion of bear hunting in Kentucky. The group says the state's black bear population is still small and needs time to expand.

"We have two very small populations of bears in Kentucky," said Wendy Keefover, of the Humane Society of the United States. "They want to increase the hunting quota essentially by 10 bears. They should be augmenting the population rather than killing it."

But officials with Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources say the number of bears in Kentucky has increased. The population can withstand an expansion of the hunt, they say.

"We are very responsible with the management of our wildlife species in this state," said Karen Waldrop, a deputy commissioner with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. "We put a lot of work into our seasons and our quotas because we want to make sure we protect wildlife in Kentucky."

Research studies estimate the Kentucky black bear population at slightly fewer than 350 bears. Black bears were once plentiful in Kentucky but through hunting and destruction of habitat, they were virtually eliminated from Kentucky by the early 1900s. The bears returned to Eastern Kentucky in the 1990s. Kentucky's first hunt was in 2010.

In 2014, 21 bears were killed during the bear hunting season. Under the proposed changes, the state would permit 35 bears or up to 20 female bears to be killed during the season.

The state has various bear hunting seasons: an archery and crossbow season, a chase season (which uses dogs to hunt bears) a traditional gun hunt season and a junior season for young hunters. In addition to increasing the number of bears allowed to be killed, the area in which those bears can be hunted will also increase by more than 20 percent. In addition, the archery and crossbow season which traditionally started the Saturday after Thanksgiving will begin in late October. The total amount of days of the archery and crossbow season will be changed from seven to nine.

The regulations changing the hunt are scheduled to be reviewed by the General Assembly's Administrative Regulations subcommittee at its July 14 meeting. But Gov. Steve Beshear can still implement the regulations even if the committee does not approve them. Keefover said the humane society will also plead its case to Beshear.

"We are not asking them to stop the hunt, we want them to stay with their current regulations," Keefover said. "This is too much too soon."

The Humane Society says moving the start date for archery and crossbow season to October from November could mean more female bears and cubs could be injured or killed during the hunt. Female bears and cubs typically hibernate in late November. But many will not yet be hibernating at the time the archery season begins. Even though there is a limit on the number of female bears that can be hunted in Kentucky, many hunters don't know the sex of a bear at the time it is killed, Keefover said.

But fish and wildlife does not believe that more female bears will be at risk if the season start is moved up. There are limits on the number of female bears that can be killed for each hunt season. "If five female have been harvested, than that season closes," Waldrop said.

Expanding the area where bears can be hunted during the chase season is also problematic, the humane society argues. The department has three chase areas where bears can be hunted in a 16-county bear hunting zone.

Dogs don't know where property lines are and can chase bears across property lines. Hunting dogs also pester and chase other wildlife and can harm or kill them, Keefover said.

Waldrop said the department has very strict guidelines for hunters that use dogs.

"It's in a very rural area," Waldrop said of the proposed bear hunt region. "Our hunters know it's the duty of the hunter to control their animals and they can be subject to citation or be fined for trespassing."

The department says Kentucky's black bear population is growing.

There are two populations of black bears in Kentucky — the Big South Fork population, which has approximately 38 bears, and the Eastern Kentucky population which is estimated to have a little more than 300 bears. The Big South Fork population is located in Wayne, McCreary, Pulaski, Whitley and Letcher counties. The larger Eastern Kentucky population is located in Pike, Floyd, Letcher and Perry counties.

Recent research shows that the Big South Fork population had a growth rate of 18.3 percent from 1998-2012.

"This is an exceptionally high population growth rate for black bears and one that no bear manager would classify as 'modestly recovered,'" the department said in a written response to the group's objections to the proposed changes.