As a second bear hunting season gets underway in the Smokies, disputes arise over the practices of "high tech" hunters

by Betty Bean

He first saw the skinny little mama bear on a late summer morning before daylight, way up in the top of his apple tree.

"The dog woke me up barking, and when I went out to check, the bear growled at me and kindly popped her teeth," says J.R. Buchanan, for whom bears are no cause for alarm. "I remember thinking she was awful small to have three cubs."

When he got up the next morning, he found the bears were still up the tree; so he told his wife they'd have to leave the house for awhile before the sow would feel safe enough to climb down and slip back into the woods with the cubs.

For weeks thereafter, the Buchanans got used to seeing the bears. But not lately:

"She hasn't been seen in the valley since bear season," Buchanan says.

He has a pretty good idea what happened to her. Even though it is illegal to kill a mother bear with cubs at her side, odds are she was one of the 122 registered black bear kills in Blount County during the October bear hunting season. The fate of the cubs is unknown.

On the other side of the mountain a couple of months later, 10 black bear cubs cling to the high branches of the tulip poplar trees like fat, furry fruit. The orphaned cubs doze—barely visible from the slope behind the trailer at the Appalachian Bear Center—oblivious to the swaying of the spindly trees in the rising wind. The curator of the Bear Center, Daryl Ratajczch, 28, hastens to say that four of those cubs and one more in the shed are there because of run-ins with cars. He is careful not to step on any toes.

"We don't take sides in the hunting controversy," he says. "We get a lot of donations from hunters, and we need support from both sides."

It's good that he is careful. Bear hunting has become a contentious issue in the mountainous counties of East Tennessee, particularly Blount and Sevier, where confrontations between hunters and homeowners or tourists have become a familiar story this fall—and the Appalachian Bear Center finds itself right in the middle of the fight. On one hand, the mission of the Center is to rehabilitate orphaned cubs and injured adult bears who would otherwise perish in the wild, thereby pleasing those who want to protect the bears. On the other hand, that very same mission also pleases bear hunters who want trophies.

Some reduce the argument to a culture clash between bear hunters and bear huggers; others see it as the inevitable consequence of urban encroachment on mountain ways. For Buchanan, whose father and grandfather hunted and trapped the mountains for a living, it is the high-tech, search-and-destroy methods of modern bear hunting that get under his skin.

"We've got two kinds of bear hunters—the ones that go out in the woods with a gun or bow and arrow put their skill up against the animal; and then there's what I call the dirt bags—the ones that stand out there on the road and will kill anything, no matter how small or how big..."

The all-too-predictable clash of competing interests is exacerbated by the state having two bear hunting seasons, the second of which began December 8 and will last until the 17th. The body count for the short "early" season in Blount, Sevier, and parts of Cocke counties was 244. The early October season was added in 1987 when hunters, who have considerable clout with state legislators, complained that bears had already denned up for hibernation and gotten scarce by December. The legislature complied.

In addition to the 122 Blount County bears, 96 were taken in Sevier County and 26 in Cocke. The running count for the December season is drastically lower: one in Blount; 14 in Sevier; five in Cocke; 12 in Monroe; seven in Polk; six in Carter; five in Johnson and one each in Greene and Washington counties.

Buchanan isn't comforted by the lower numbers for the December hunt:

"They probably killed them out in October."

Ratajczch and his wife, Sandy, have been in Townsend since June when they came down from Syracuse, N.Y. He has a degree in wildlife biology, which he puts to use caring for the cubs, who are kept in two half-acre "pens"—fenced-in compounds shrouded with heavy sheets of black plastic to shield them from human contact.

"They never know they are being cared for by a human," Ratajczch says. "They sleep in the trees and forage for their food, which we have an intricate system set up to scatter around the pens."

The bears' diet is as natural as possible—mostly acorns gathered by school children and donated to the center, apples, and other local produce supplemented judiciously with dry dog food. A plea for help with food last month resulted in an overflowing storehouse.

Ratajczch explains that mother bears and cubs, in a normal year, go into their dens in November. Adult males follow in December. Cubs are born in late January and early February. This year has been different, however, due to a poor acorn crop in higher elevations.

"Acorns are their typical food before hibernation, so the bears come down to lower elevations to look for food."

An unseasonably warm fall has added to the out-migration from the shelter of the park, exposing greater numbers of bears to hunters. And even though it is illegal to kill females with cubs, it undoubtedly happens.

The Center takes cubs rescued from the wild from two sources only: the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the National Parks Service. Cubs that have been habituated to humans are not eligible, and at present, the shelter is at capacity and cannot accept any more bears.

Ratajczch hopes to release this crop of cubs around the end of December, when they will weigh around 50 lbs. When there is room, the Center also takes in injured bears in need of medical care.

Buchanan, 71, lives in Happy Valley on the North Carolina end of Blount County, between Chilhowee Lake and the foot of Chilhowee Mountain at the mouth of Abrams Creek, not far from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park boundary. He was a 31-year park ranger who, before his knees wore out and forced him to retire, was known in law enforcement circles as the foremost tracker of humans in the United States. Frequently "borrowed" by the FBI for manhunts and to teach classes, he is the holder of the highest medal for valor the government awards to civilians. He was born in the Smokies before the park was ever thought up, and he likes all the critters that visit his home place, except maybe some of the bear hunters who want to park in his yard.

"These so-called hunters line up along the road and send people into the woods with the dogs to flush the bear out. As the bear comes out, he can't even make it across the road. It's not hunting; it's slaughter. It's bushwhacking."

He says he'll not mention names, but that some of the well-known hunters are also well-known poachers. He chuckles at the memory of a prank a ranger pulled on the owner of a radio-collared hound captured in the park:

"We caught a hog [wild boar] in a trap, and one guy put the radio collar on the hog. That bear hunter run down that mountain for weeks trying to catch his dog..."

He's worried about the little sow bear and her triplets.

"She didn't hurt a thing. She got in my hummingbird feeder, and when she was up the tree, I had my old truck parked under it and she painted it pretty good, but I enjoy seeing wildlife. Some people see a bear and just get scared and go overboard.

"If it was up to me, this early [bear hunting] season would be cut out. They're killing pregnant mother bears, and the cubs are dying out there. Two-thirds of the cubs whose mothers got shot this year have died."

Doug Scott, a regional wildlife biologist with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, says TWRA has worked hard to insure that the bear population remains healthy in East Tennessee's 6 million acres of bear habitat, 1 million of which are officially designated as bear sanctuary; and he says hunters are a necessary part of the formula.

"We did realize we would have a high (bear) harvest this year. Late this summer, the mast (acorn) situation was serious. Low or no mast means low reproduction, greater movement (into lower elevations in search of food) and higher mortality. The bear population has been increasing steadily through the '80s and the '90s. We had a year like this in '92. This is something natural conditions are going to throw in every few years."

Top o' the World is a Blount County neighborhood on the other side of Chilhowee Mountain from Buchanan. Residents there will no longer speak on the record, because they say they are afraid of reprisals from hunters. In October, several of them did speak on the record to the Daily Times, the Maryville newspaper, and charged that a record-sized 600-pound bear shot Oct. 19 was a nearly-tame neighborhood pet named Homer. Many residents say the hunters were trespassing when bear was shot. Others say this is not true.

Bob Ripley, regional manager for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, says hunters must have permission to hunt, whether the land is "posted" or not. He also says it is up to landowners to show up in court to prosecute trespassers and that he has never heard of reprisals by hunters.

He also says there is nothing illegal about the sophisticated locating devices and radio-transmitting collars hunters use to track the whereabouts of their dogs.

"By and large, a lot of houndsmen have taken on this high-tech equipment. Their argument is they have a high investment in their dogs, and if they can't retrieve him, he ends up splattered on the highway."

Another state official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, concedes that although there are some "still" hunters, who go into the woods in much the same way Buchanan's father did, modern bear hunting is generally just as Buchanan describes it.

"Bear hunters are their own worst enemies. They are very conspicuous with their big trucks and dog boxes, standing on the side of the road with locating devices waiting for bears to be flushed out by hounds with radio collars. Some of them are very concerned about their image. Others frankly don't care. But the bottom line is that, while the techniques are disagreeable to some, the harvest is necessary.

"On one hand, these guys need a wake-up call. On the other hand, we need those people so bears can be harvested on a sustained yield basis."

The residents say the TWRA, which is supported by revenues raised by hunting license sales, is so pro-hunter that nonhunters cannot hope to get a fair shake by going through legal channels. They also charge that one of their representatives was beaten by bear hunters outside the courthouse during a meeting of the Blount County Commission last month, while sheriff's deputies stood by and did nothing.

Blount County Sheriff Jim Berrong, who says his department is getting an increasing number of nuisance calls resulting from bear encounters, also says his officers didn't witness the attack on the Top o' the World resident.

"People came to County Commission to oppose the next scheduled hunt, and by the time we sent officers outside, there'd been a skirmish," Berrong says.

"If they feel their rights have been violated, they should press charges."

Want to help the Appalachian Bear Center? Send donations to:
The Appalachian Bear Center
P.O. Box 53446
Knoxville, TN 37950-3446