The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is recommending that bear hunting seasons be opened in all or parts of at least 15 new counties, including eastern Hamilton, Bradley and McMinn.
TWRA Chief of Wildlife Daryl Ratajczak said he will be making that recommendation to the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission at next week’s meeting.
Ratajczak said as bear populations expand, TWRA’s new bear management plan has identified areas of the state that require different management strategies.
“In some areas, especially around the Smoky Mountains, we have oodles of bears, so we want to maximize [hunting] opportunities in those areas,” Ratajczak said. “But on the Cumberland Plateau and other transitional areas, we have some bears-but we want to see those populations continue to expand.”
Ratajczak said a statewide survey showed that people like the idea of having more bears. There have been numerous bear sightings in Southeast Tennessee in recent years in places where bears had rarely been seen before. However, not all those counties will have a hunting season yet. Ratajczak said TWRA’s legal mandate is to only allow the hunting of “surplus” wildlife populations, allowing overall numbers to increase or remain stable.
In addition to opening up new areas to hunting, TWRA will recommend moving the hunting dates in high-population counties forward. In the 1980s, bear hunting seasons were moved later in the year to protect female bears, which traditionally go to dens to hibernate earlier than males. But Ratajczak said now that populations in those counties have increased dramatically, they actually need to harvest more bears. He thinks moving season dates earlier in the year while still providing the same total number of hunting days will accomplish that.
Generally, there have been 500-600 bears killed by hunters in Tennessee in recent years. Ratajczak said they could actually almost double the number of bears taken in some areas while still keeping the overall population stable.
“We estimate in the Smoky Mountain area we have at least 5,000 bears, and we’re only harvesting about 10 percent,” he said.
Ratajczak hasn’t said exactly what the new hunting season dates or regulations will be, waiting until it is presented to the TFWC, the governing body over wildlife regulations in the state.
Ratajczak said he’ll also let wildlife commissioners know of next year’s plan to manage turkey hunting by zones. Up until now, they have set regulations on a somewhat confusing, county-by-county basis. But their goal is to manage turkeys and bears as they have managed deer for many years-setting seasons and other regulations based on zones.
He said the state’s turkey population has expanded in most areas where he wouldn’t ever expect to see great increases in numbers. He said the turkey harvest during the current spring season is within about 5 percent of last year’s harvest, even though “opening day was a washout due to heavy downpours across the state.”
In recent days, Ratajczak and other TWRA personnel have been battling an apparent false rumor spread by social media about a reduction in the number of bucks hunters would be allowed to take this fall.
“The Wildlife Resources Agency staff will not be recommending a reduction in the statewide buck limits,” Ratajczak said. “We factor in public comments we have received since January and annual statewide surveys, and for the past several years, there has been no overwhelming public support for a reduction of the three-buck bag limit.”
Still, Ratajczak said he expects a significant turnout by deer hunters at next week’s meeting because of concern about the measure.
Ratajczak added, however, that the formal vote by the commission will not take place until the May meeting.
The TFWC meeting will be held at the TWRA’s Ray Bell Region II Building in Nashville. The TFWC committee meetings will begin at 1 p.m. April 24. The formal TFWC meeting starts at 9 a.m. April 25.
Richard Simms is a contributing writer, focusing on outdoor sports.