Kills down in annual bear hunt

wcrenshaw@macon.comDecember 14, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- Rainy weather may have saved the lives of some of Middle Georgia’s black bears Saturday.

The third annual one-day bear hunt was held, and only one was brought to the check station at Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area.

When the hunt was first held in 2011, 34 bears were taken and about half were females. That drew some controversy, since it was about 10 percent of the estimated population. Last year the number dropped to 14.

Bobby Bond, senior wildlife biologist for the Department of Natural Resources, said the drop-off this year was likely due to the rain keeping hunters out of the woods. Also, the date of the hunt was moved from November to December when female bears are preparing for denning season and are less active.

John Trussell, a Houston County outdoors writer who advocates for protecting the bear population, was at the check station Saturday, along with DNR game wardens and University of Georgia students who are studying the bears.

Trussell wanted the state to put a limit on the number of hunters allowed to participate, but he said the later date was a good step.

“I think the DNR is doing fairly good,” he said. “I think the harvest is within reason.”

The hunt took place in Houston, Twiggs and Bibb counties, and was limited to private property. Hunters could shoot bears until dark.

Justin Sapp of Cochran brought in the only bear just after 2 p.m. In previous years the first ones started coming in around noon. He killed a 142-pound male on property his family owns in Twiggs County.

Sapp said as many as 13 bears have been spotted in one day on his family’s property in Bleckley County, and sightings have been increasing in recent years. He believes the population is growing and the hunt should be expanded.

“It seems like there are more and more every year,” he said.

It was his first bear kill. Last year, he sat in a tree stand from dawn to dusk and never saw a bear. He spotted the bear he killed this year at about noon. He planned to eat the meat and have the bear’s hide turned into a rug.

A study of the Middle Georgia bear population is underway and the results will help determine policy for future hunts. Bond said he believes the population may be down from the previous estimate of 300, but he declined to say how much.

Mike Hooker, a University of Georgia graduate student leading the study, said there are still a couple of years left to conduct it. However, preliminary indications are that the population south of Interstate 16 is 180 to 200 bears. Next summer the area will focus north of I-16, but there aren’t believed to be as many bears there.

Bond said there have been as many as 17 bears killed on Middle Georgia roadways in one year, but usually averages about five. The largest bear killed in the Middle Georgia hunt weighed 436 pounds.

The study, funded by DNR and the Georgia Department of Transportation, has included putting GPS collars on 75 bears, placing microchips on cubs, and collecting hair samples for DNA testing by baiting bears to pass through barbed wire.

In addition to helping set hunting policy, the Department of Transportation will use the results of the study to determine where to place underpasses for wildlife when it widens Ga. 96 from I-16 to Bonaire.

A bear was killed on Interstate 16 just recently. That bear was taken by someone before DNR officials could get to it, which is against state law, according to Bond.

Some of the bears killed in previous hunts have been determined to have been killed illegally. When the bears are brought in, wardens may ask the hunter to show them the location of the kill. If it’s within 200 yards of bait, the hunter will get a citation and won’t get to keep the bear.

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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