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Elk hearing draws a crowd

A minor adjustment to elk depredation rules brought 70 people — about 40 of them college students — out to Haywood Community College last week for a public hearing with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

out frShould North Carolina start thinking about a hunting season for elk? 

If the crowd that turned out to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s public hearing last week is any indication, it depends who you ask. Farmers, hunters, biologists, wildlife enthusiasts and everyone in between filled the seats at Haywood Community College’s auditorium, waiting for the chance to give their two cents on the Wildlife Commission’s proposal to pave the way for an elk hunting season in the future.

coverFifteen years ago, a herd of 52 elk set foot in their new home — the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — for the first time, the start of an experimental attempt to restore the long-absent species to its rightful place in the North Carolina mountains. 

These days, the elk herd is quite a bit larger, with groups of the animals pinching off the original herd in the Cataloochee area and even taking up residence outside park boundaries. In anticipation of the herd’s continued growth, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has come out with a proposal to pave the way for an elk season, putting up the legal framework to make hunting possible once it deems population levels high enough. Often, proposals related to hunting and wildlife management are controversial, but this one appears to have support from a broad spectrum of people representing a range of wildlife and conservation interests.

elkAs the elk herd in Western North Carolina continues to grow, an elk-hunting season could become a possibility under a proposal being considered by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

out frThings have gone well for the Smokies elk, and they’ve risen from reintroduction experiment to established population. But meanwhile, they’ve outgrown Great Smoky Mountains National Park, spilling over into private lands to find pasture on agricultural fields not intended as gifts to the elk. A land protection project by The Conservation Fund seeks to provide some more suitable places for the elk to go. 

“The reason the elk have come out of the park is there are now more elk than there is habitat to sustain them, so the [N.C.] Wildlife [Resources] Commission is going to need to work to create some habitat that both elk and people will enjoy,” said Bill Holman, state director of The Conservation Fund. 

A North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) press release from Dec. 9 announced that work was underway, “… to restore habitat by promoting new forest growth for wildlife,” on the Catpen project. The Catpen area is on the south side of Bluff Mountain in the Appalachian Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest near the Tennessee-North Carolina border, just north of Max Patch in Madison County.

The Catpen project is unique. It’s the first project to be implemented via the master stewardship agreement between the USDA Forest Service and the NCWRC, which is the first master stewardship agreement in the country between the USDA Forest Service and a state agency.

Smoky Mountain News (SMN) first reported on these innovative stewardship contracts in the Jan. 19 edition in the article “Logging for cash versus long-range forest health.” That article can be seen online at www.smokymountainnews.com/advertise/item/3072.

Some of the differences between conventional timber bids and stewardship contracting pointed out in that article include:

“The new approach means the forest service can award bids based on the ‘best contract’ rather than the most money, Remington [Dale Remington, sales forester for the National Forests in North Carolina] said. The contract could go to a timber company, but could likewise be awarded to an environmental group or hunting club.

“Under stewardship contracts, the Forest Service could lay out the goals and objectives and let the contractor tell them how they planned to achieve those goals, he said. And unlike the traditional timber sale, those goals could even include wildlife diversity and protecting old growth stands.

“Stewardship contracts can also be spread over a larger area than conventional timber sales. Most conventional timber sales are confined to only the specific area the logging will be done. Most of them impact around 150 to 250 acres. Under stewardship contracts, the Forest Service designates the stewardship area and it can range from a simple stream corridor to an entire basin encompassing 2,000 or more acres.”

Another difference between conventional timber sales and stewardship contracting was pointed out in SMN’s Feb. 16 Naturalist’s Corner, “Time to shift gears” -www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/3268-time-to-shift-gears - ; “… most of the money stays in the region rather than going to the U.S. Treasury and can be used for other restoration projects across the forest.”

The first phase of the Catpen project affects about 15 acres and according to NCWRC’s Gordon Warburton, will “…benefit deer, turkey, grouse, bears, neotropical songbirds and other species.” The second phase of the project is designed to enhance Max Patch Pond.

I commend NCWRC for capitalizing on this new tool for forest management. I spoke with Dale Remington back in February when I did the Naturalist’s Corner column and he assured me then that he and the Forest Service were open to stewardship contracts with organizations like The Nature Conservancy, Wild South and others and that the focus of such contracts was the overall health of the forests of North Carolina and beyond.

I hope to have the opportunity to write about such a project soon.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

There’s a new call to arms for hunters of wild boar: shoot as many as you can — day or night, anytime of year — and ask questions later.

Wild boar are a reviled scourge on the landscape. Yet until now, hunters couldn’t shoot more than two per person and the hunting season was limited to only six months of the year in the six western counties.

The game laws didn’t make sense given the nearly universal loathing of wild boar, prompting the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to consider a more liberal hunting policy toward the animal.

The open invitation to hunt them in mass quantities is a plea to hunters to help get rid of the destructive beasts that have taken root in the mountains despite not belonging here.

“Ideally, statewide from the mountains to the coast, all feral swine would disappear,” said Evin Stanford, a wild boar expert with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

But the hunting community might not be so eager to see wild boar wiped out.

“I like to hunt them, and I would hate for them to be eradicated,” said Curtis Bradley, a hunter from Canton and member of the WNC Sportsman’s Club.

Many hunters don’t like the idea of an open, year-round season with no bag limits. Bag limits are intended to protect game animals from over hunting, ensuring their viability as a huntable species in the future.

“I think the ones that actually hunt them wouldn’t want the bag limits to go away,” Bradley said.

Hunters are expected to voice their disapproval at a public hearing on the new hunting laws for feral swine being held at 7 p.m. Wednesday (Sept. 14) at Haywood Community College by the N.C. Wildlife Commission.

Ecologists have a different view, however. Feral swine are nature’s version of a bulldozer, devouring everything in their path and leaving a wake of uprooted earth.

The hunting changes will apply in the six western counties. In the rest of the state, hunters can already shoot an unlimited number of wild boar all year. The change will bring the six western counties in line with the long-standing policy toward wild boar everywhere else.

In fact, they aren’t even called wild boar in the rest of the state, but instead are bestowed with the far less romantic name “feral swine.”

“Everything is wide open on feral swine outside those six western counties,” Stanford said. “Our agency for a long time has not seen them as a desirable species on the landscape.”

Saying so publicly is a big step for the Wildlife Commission, however, which until now has been swayed by hunting interests when it comes to wild boar in the mountains.

“In that part of the state it is a traditional big game species that has been hunted for generations,” Stanford said.

The Wildlife Commission had attempted to balance interests of wild boar hunters with the ecological harm wrought by the species. But it now seems poised to buck pressure from the hunting community and shed the special status for wild boar that had persisted in the far western mountains.

“I think that was a fight we thought at one time we could not win,” Stanford said. “It seems the tradition of hunting wild boar has been waning, at least compared to 20, 30, 40 years ago.”

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where hunting isn’t allowed anyway and the ecosystem always comes first, was alone in its admitted mission to eradicate wild boar until recently. The Smokies has made an impressive dent in the wild hog population by trapping. Realistically, they’ll never get rid of them completely, but hope to keep them in check.

“It is definitely a daunting task, given the manpower and the amount of area we have,” said Bill Stiver, wildlife biologist in the national park. But, “We have kept the pressure on.”

Until recently, however, the Smokies begrudgingly turned over some of the boar it trapped to the U.S. Forest Service, which in turn set them free in the Nantahala National Forest. The Smokies’ more rugged stock of wild boar is particularly desired by the hunting community, which pressured the forest service to save the wild boar from the Smokies’ traps and release them in the forest. The practice wasn’t ended until 2005.

 

Rogue introductions

Fringe elements in the hunting community have been doing their part to keep the species alive and well in the state, albeit illegally. Rogue hunters are suspected of releasing hogs and pigs into the forests to boost the feral swine population and counter efforts to eradicate them.

While no one has been caught in the act, Stiver has encountered feral swine in the wild with pale skin, curly tails, smooth skin, even spots — signs of domestic pigs rather than the course-haired, tusked feral cousins.

“Historically wild boar in the park were traditionally black. They had that Russian look. But in recent years we’ve seen hogs with much shorter snouts, with much shorter legs, animals that appear to be semi-domesticated,” Stiver said. “They just stand there. They had no fear of people as if they had been in a pen and then been let loose.”

That, more so than pigs accidentally escaping from farmers, is how the population of feral swine has spread across the state.

“In most instances the population is established by individuals intentionally releasing feral swine with the intention of establishing a population that could be hunted,” Stanford said.

It has been illegal to release swine into the wild for several years, but it technically wasn’t illegal to move them.

“Individuals could trap swine and move them up and down the roadways and there was no violation involved,” Stanford said.

That loophole was closed with a new state law this year, banning the transport of live hogs without identification approved by the state veterinarian, so now only hog farmers can legally transport their livestock.

The law also prohibits the removal of live feral hogs from traps. Anyone trapping a feral hog has to kill it inside the trap before opening the door — removing any doubt over whether “relocating” feral swine versus “releasing” them is legal or not. It also gives wildlife officers more ammunition to crack down on rogue introductions.

Oddly, an open season on feral swine — allowing hunters to shoot as many as they want year-round — can backfire. Those who like hunting feral swine are tempted to set out new animals to keep the population viable and huntable.

 

Some states are trying a novel solution

In Tennessee, hunting wild boar was outlawed this year for most parts of the state.

“The strategy we are going after is pretty radical, but a very aggressive approach at eradicating hogs across the state,” said Grey Anderson, a wildlife biologist with the Tennessee Wildlife Commission. “It is a little against the grain. The traditional method is to liberalize your season, and then you get more hunters and it reduces the population.”

But Tennessee found that quite the opposite played out on the ground. After changing its wild hog hunting rules in 1999 — lifting the bag limits and allowing year-round hunting — the population actually increased. The reason is no surprise: hunters launched rogue campaign of illegally releasing hogs in the wild, resulting in more feral swine instead of less, Anderson said.

“It was counter productive to what we were trying to do,” Anderson said.

Kansas was the first to try the alternative strategy, and Tennessee decided it was worth a try. Hunters aren’t too pleased, however.

“We are getting a ton of pushback now,” Anderson said.

Now that hunting wild hogs is illegal, the Tennessee Wildlife Commission has started trapping and killing them itself. Without hunters propagating the species, however, Anderson believes the agency will be able to make a dent in the population.

There is one exception to Tennessee’s new policy. In the mountains of East Tennessee around the Smokies, wild boar hunting is still allowed under some circumstances. If hunters are hunting bear or deer and come across wild hogs, they are allowed to shoot them.

“If your bear dogs get on a hog trail you can take them,” Anderson said.

The reason is a familiar one: a storied tradition of wild boar hunting in the mountains.

“They have been hunting wild hogs in that part of the world that we know of since the early 1900s. There is a very strong tradition of hunting,”Anderson said, Agricultural interests are backing North Carolina’s crack down on feral swine. Feral swine carry lethal diseases, including several documented cases of pseudrabies.

“They are tremendous risk to our domestic livestock and swine industry,” Stanford said.

 

Going native

Most of the feral swine in the state are descendants of domestic hogs turned out by early settlers to graze on the open range, or in more recent decades, animals that have been purposely released. After a few generations in the wild, they start to sport hair and tusks.

“In as soon as three generations they can start to develop some of the feral traits,” Stanford said. “They start to revert relatively quickly.”

Wild boar lineage is unique in the far western mountains, however. Here, their ancestry can be traced back to the true European wild boar.

A stock of European wild boar was imported by a hunting preserve in 1912 in the Hooper’s Bald area of the Smokies. In 1920, they all escaped, with estimates ranging from 60 to 100 of the beasts.

This genetic line still lingers in mountain wild boar, but has been dramatically watered down by domestic swine injected into the population.

Feral swine are unfortunate proliferators. Mothers have five to six young a year on average, and in a bumper year for acorns or other food mainstays, they can have two litters a year. They are fertile at just a year old.

The young pigs stick close to their giant mothers, and probably have pretty low mortality from predators such as coyotes or bobcat, Stanford said. As adults, humans are their only enemy.

Bradley, who has hunted wild boar on game lands in Swain and Jackson counties, said it is a challenge to hunt them, mostly because you can’t find them. They don’t frequent the same place day after day. They come through, eat, then move on.

“You can go out there for an entire season and never see a single one. You will see the remnants of them, where they have torn the woods up,” Bradley said. But, “It may be weeks before they come back through there.”

Bradley is no stranger to hogs. His family ran a hog farm and slaughter house in Jackson County for 100 years, going back four generations. He is the first to agree feral swine are destructive.

“When they tear it up, they tear it up big time. They come through like a carpet roller,” Bradley said.

Bradley believes the N.C. Wildlife Commission is giving in to political pressure from the growing number of upscale subdivisions in the mountains pushing into the forest habitats, and then complaining about the animals in their yards.

“You got a lot of influx of people and they want to change the rules to suit their lifestyle,” Bradley said.

The Commissioners of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission unanimously adopted a resolution recently reaffirming the agency’s longstanding support for hunting with the use of dogs.

“We support the use of dogs in hunting in North Carolina where such hunting is consistent with the sound conservation of our state’s treasured wildlife resources and not contrary to the protection of the private property rights of its citizens,” said Gordon Myers, executive director of the commission. “Hunting with dogs is part of a centuries old tradition in North Carolina and the members of the Wildlife Resources Commission determined that it was important to clarify their position regarding those practices.”

The partnership of hunters and hunting dogs, commissioners affirmed, has long been a central thread of North Carolina hunting culture, and thousands of hunters – young and old – use dogs to pursue grouse and quail, waterfowl and woodcock, deer and bear, rabbits and squirrels, and foxes and bobcats, and raccoons and opossums.

“The members of the Wildlife Resources Commission looks forward to continuing its successful record of working with multiple partners to provide opportunities for hunters to use dogs on state and private lands where feasible and appropriate,” said Commission Chairman Steve Windham.

For more information on hunting in North Carolina or for a copy of the resolution, visit www.ncwildlife.org.

The non-profit grassroots conservation organization WildSouth sponsored a meeting last week to discuss complaints and questions from the public regarding poaching, trespassing and other wildlife-related issues.

The meeting, held in the Harrell Center at Lake Junaluska on Jan. 7, attracted about 30 people including private citizens, members of the North Carolina General Assembly, representatives of the Western North Carolina Sportsman’s Club, representatives from the Southern Appalachian Multiple Use Council, law enforcement personnel, members of North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Division of Enforcement and NCWRC biologists.

According to Ben Prater, associate executive director of Wild South — which has offices in Asheville and Moulton, Ala. — the meeting was organized with the aid of John Edwards of Cashiers, organizer of the annual Mountain Wildlife Days and Wild South’s wildlife outreach coordinator.

Prater said the Wild South had been in contact with enforcement agencies and members of the General Assembly with regards to meeting needs in view of significant budget shortfalls.

Captain Greg Daniels of the NCWRC Division of Enforcement spoke to the group about some of the issues as they related to his department. Daniels said that poaching incidents appeared to be down this fall. “Mother nature did us a big favor,” he said.

Daniels said that the abundant mast crop this year “kept the deer in the woods.” Daniels also said there was a decline in big game hunting this year and felt like that could possibly be attributed to the poor economy.

But Daniels said the big news in the enforcement division was the budget and new leadership in Raleigh.

“The budget is definitely a pressing issue and will require us to take a fresh look at the way we do business,” Daniels said.

He said there would be some streamlining in the hierarchy, cutting some of the administrative positions and putting more officers in the field. Another new move by the division is marking some of their vehicles.

“We’ve spent most of our career hidden. Now we are marking some of our vehicles. We think people want to see their wildlife officers,” Daniels said.

But, he said, it was going to be a tough balancing act with only a couple of agents per county and the need for covert operations in dealing with large-scale poaching.

When one of the attends said he felt it was unacceptable to have three biologists positions unfilled, Rep. Ray Rapp (D-Mars Hill) said there was little chance of resolving that problem right now.

“That $3.7 billion (budget) shortfall is real. There are going to be painful cuts, filling positions is not likely,” Rep. Rapp said.

 

Meeting undertow

A strong contingent of hunters present felt that management or, in their minds, mismanagement of North Carolina’s national forest lands — particularly the absence of logging — was perhaps the largest bane to North Carolina’s wildlife.

In a short interview, Steve Henson, executive director of the Southern Appalachian Multiple Use Council, said it was impossible to talk about wildlife issues in the state without talking about the management of North Carolina’s national forests. He said that the dramatic decline of timber harvesting in the national forests, brought about by litigation from environmental organizations, was a major problem.

“It’s a big issue,” he said, “it’s been scientifically documented that the lack of early successional habitat is responsible for a decline in wildlife populations.”

Henson said Wild South had ulterior motives for calling the meeting. He said that with the Forest Service plan revision coming up in a year or so that Wild South was trying to position itself to be in a place to say they speak for the sportsmen of North Carolina.

“They don’t speak for me,” Henson said.

In an interview after the meeting, Prater flatly denied the allegations. “I can assure you and, hopefully, assure the public that Wild South is not looking to lead the Forest Service in any direction. We have worked with the Forest Service and the public for 20 years to help see that the national forests are managed in the best interest of everyone.

“We’re all about empowering people to make wise decisions. If I had my druthers, I would rather have not seen the discussion go in that direction. National Forest Service issues are so complicated. There’s not much we can do but try and work with the Forest Service in a collaborative way.”

Prater said he had hoped to stay focused on enforcement, education and human/wildlife conflict issues, but noted that because the meeting was public and habitat is a legitimate concern that he felt obligated “to provide people the opportunity to be heard.”

John Edwards said that the majority of Americans are non-hunters and that he believes there needs to be a forum where hunters and other wildlife advocates can have meaningful discussions about wildlife issues from different perspectives and all sides can be heard.

 

How do you feel?


Snow and icy conditions last kept a lot of people away from the meeting sponsored by Wild South, and that to try and include input from those people and other interested parties Wild South has created a survey and will use the information gleaned from the survey to plan its next meeting. To find out more about Wild South and/or WNC Wildlife Advocates, or to fill out the survey, visit www.wildsouth.org.

Kieran Roe, executive director of Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, said that if the North Carolina Wildlife Commission does not commit to managing the East Fork Headwaters tract that the deal could fall through.

“There’s a lot riding on what Wildlife Resources decides,” she told The Smoky Mountain News in an interview this week.

Roe is guardedly optimistic that CMLC and its partner The Conservation Fund will be able to close on the property before the end of the year.

On CMLC’s website it states: “Funding for this project is not the chief issue. Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and our partner, The Conservation Fund, have identified funding sources. While not guaranteed, the funders are unlikely to invest in East Fork Headwaters unless it enters the public domain. Given the high quality hunting and fishing on the tract, WRC is the most likely candidate for managing the tract. Note that WRC is not expected to take title to East Fork Headwaters immediately. The Conservation Fund will continue to own East Fork Headwaters for the time being until the total purchase price has been paid to the landowner. However, The Conservation Fund cannot make the initial $3 million down payment without the commitment of WRC to establish a game land and eventually take title to East Fork Headwaters. The Conservation Fund is not set up to own land indefinitely.”

The state Wildlife Resources Commission is playing it close to the vest. Chris McGrath, faunal diversity coordinator for the agency, said that Wildlife Commission biologists have been to the property, have consulted with the owners and potential buyers, and have assisted in assessing the merits of the property. He said the biologists have written reports detailing their findings for the director’s office, but that any management decisions would have to come from that office.

Geoff Cantrell, Wildlife Commission public information officer, would only say that the Headwaters tract was on the Land Use and Access Committee’s agenda for discussion on Wednesday, Nov. 3, and that the committee report would be on Thursday’s agenda.

Roe noted that Wildlife Commission was, “… not being asked, at this point, for any funding. We’re just asking them to work with us on managing the property.”

(Check online at www.smokymountainnews.com after Thursday’s Wildlife Resources Commission meeting for an update.)

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