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Wednesday, 20 February 2008 00:00

State forest users protests proposed bear hunt

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A handful of lucky hunting parties were about to embark on a special bear hunt in DuPont State Forest last fall when wildlife managers realized they had gotten themselves in a bit of snare.

The N.C. Wildlife Commission organized the special hunt to curb the bear population, which had allegedly become a nuisance. Hunting would be limited by permits, with hunters selected through a lottery drawing. But days before the first of three scheduled hunts, the Wildlife Commission realized bear hunting with dogs wasn’t allowed in DuPont State Forest, per its own game rules.

The Wildlife Commission had to call off the hunt and refund application fees to all the hunters who entered the lottery.

“We had to cancel it otherwise we would be breaking our own rule,” said Brad Gunn, wildlife biologist with the commission.

The Wildlife Commission quickly set about fixing the problem, namely changing the game rules. To do so, however, required a public comment period and a formal vote of the Wildlife Commission board.

But it appears the Wildlife Commission got more than it bargained for. Allowing bear hunting with dogs in DuPont State Forest — by permit only and just a few days out of the a year — has been met with a flood of opposition.

Impassioned pleas by hikers, campers, mountain bikers and horse back riders have filled the inbox of the Wildlife Commission, making it one of the most contentious changes to game laws the agency has ever attempted. The Wildlife Commission will vote on the proposal in early March.

By all measures, DuPont State Forest is a high-use recreation area — a backyard playground of sorts — primarily for hikers, trail runners, mountain bikers and horseback riders. Its proximity to population centers makes it so popular. Only 15 minutes from both Hendersonville and Brevard, it’s close enough for an after work jog or a Saturday morning dog walk.

In comments to the Wildlife Commission, opponents argued that bear hunting with dogs would be incongruous with the rest of the forest’s users.

“Due to the heavy recreational use that DuPont sees from hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians alike, I do not think it prudent to allow unleashed dogs to be used for hunting,” wrote Andrew Heedy from Hendersonville.

Some, of course, disagree with hunting philosophically.

“I do not want to share the park with packs of loose hunting dogs. It’s bad enough that hunters use high-powered rifles to kill animals. They certainly don’t need a pack of dogs to run down their prey,” wrote Cathie Fitzjohn of Asheville.

But the majority of those who opposed the planned hunt were averse to unleashed packs of dogs charging through the forest, more so than to the hunting itself.

“No dog should be allowed to run and no doubt the barking while tracking would upset the peacefulness of the forest,” wrote Abigail Bolton of Hendersonville, noting that hikers have to keep their dogs on a leash.

Gunn said bear hunting is difficult without dogs, however.

“You could have a still hunt, but it would be much more effective with dogs,” Gunn said. “It would greatly improve the number you could take out of there.”

That appears to be the top goal of the hunt, proposed as a way to get rid of “nuisance” bears.

“Nuisance bear complaints from surrounding homeowners and developers, coupled with a growing bear population and increased housing development in the area had prompted the scheduling of special permit hunts,” according to the Wildlife Commission.

But mountain biker Woody Keen, who frequents DuPont State Forest, disagreed.

“I don’t feel we have a nuisance level bear population. To the contrary I believe the bear population is on the decrease,” Keen said. “I used to see one or two every year, but is has been several years since I have seen one. Hunting and harvesting bear will decrease the ability of forest users to see a bear in the wild. Places like DuPont should be where folks have a good opportunity for a sighting.”

Opponents vastly outnumbered supporters in public comments — with 258 against the idea versus 98 for it. Supporters were far less verbose when registering their comments. Most simply checked a box signaling support, but didn’t elaborate why. Supporters were generally from elsewhere, suggesting that hunters across the state were registering generic support for anything that expands hunting opportunities.

“Very few folks who were for it gave rationale for why they were for it. But everybody who was against it just about told you why they were opposed to it,” Gunn said.

Gunn said the skewed responses could be a symptom of the classic problem any time public input is sought on an issue: those who don’t like an idea are much more likely to vocalize their position than supporters are.

“The folks who are happy, it doesn’t provoke as much of a response,” Gunn said.

While DuPont is a high-use recreation area, hunting is considered as equally legitimate as hiking in the state forest’s recreational mission, Gunn said. The public seems to view DuPont as a state park rather than a state forest, Gunn said.

“It was pretty clear to me that people obviously care passionately about it but were perceiving it from a completely different perspective than what the reality is,” Gunn said after reviewing all the comments.

Gunn said the Wildlife Commission will take the public comments “very seriously.”

The 19 members of the Wildlife Commission board will vote on the issue on March 5, along with a host of other changes to state game laws up for review this year. Check the Smoky Mountain News the following week for the outcome.

Want to Go

Want to visit DuPont State Forest? Go to dupontforest.com, managed by Friend of DuPont State Forest, for directions, trail maps and information on activities in the forest.

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