Hunt North Georgia’s Growing Bear Population

A record harvest was fueled by tremendous success and harvest from bowhunters - much of it on public land.

Black bears in metro Atlanta?

Georgia’s bear population is on the rise, and these highly mobile critters are showing up more and more in areas where they’re not supposed to be. Odd sightings are especially frequent this time of year, when young males disperse.

Larger adult males push young males out of their home ranges this time of year. The young bears are forced to roam seeking new territory. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the north Georgia mountains, where a booming population has spread out of the remote mountains and into people’s yards.

Not only are bears coming down out of the hills, they are making it farther south. Over the past five years, hunters have legally harvested bears just north of Atlanta in Bartow and Cherokee counties. It should come as no surprise if one or more bears are spotted in populated areas of Cobb or Fulton counties this summer. Sightings in the metro area are becoming an annual occurrence.

The advice from biologists is to leave bears alone and let them pass through the area… unless it’s hunting season. Then WRD bear biologist Adam Hammond will happily tell you how and where to hunt. Today, the emphasis in bear management has turned from protecting the population to controlling it.

Adam turned to last year’s north Georgia bear season as evidence of the health of the black bear population. He suspects a record 2011 harvest hasn’t even checked population growth. “A perfect storm” was how he described last season.

Several factors came together and resulted in hunters killing 529 bears in 2011. That’s a record harvest and then some. It’s more than 27 percent higher than the previous record harvest in 2009, and it’s nearly double the 2010 harvest total.

What factors could possibly lead to such a dramatic increase? And perhaps more importantly, what does it mean for hunters who want to kill a north Georgia bear this season?

First, Adam said a failed mast crop always leads to a high harvest. Last year’s general white oak acorn failure across the region condensed bears in the early season to areas where there were white oak acorns. On Cohutta WMA, a record 67 bears were killed mainly because the area had an abundance of white oaks producing at high elevation early in the season.

“Anything above 3,000 feet on Cohutta this past year was just covered in white oaks, which is obviously their preferred food during the fall,” said Adam. “So people were up there. It was incredible. They were seeing 10-15 bears on a trip, and sign was amazing.”

A second factor in the harvest was the increase in bag limit from one bear to two. Not only did 25 hunters fill their limits last season, Adam said the increase also led to other hunters being less selective on their first bear. Tags that would have otherwise gone unfilled were spent on smaller bears, even if those hunters didn’t take a second one.

The third major factor contributing to the high harvest, according to Adam, is an increased interest in bears from the hunting public. He said people are changing the way they think about bears. The population in north Georgia is now conservatively estimated at about 4,000 animals and growing. Black bears are spreading into populated areas, where they are viewed as a nuisance, and more people are actually hunting them instead of just shooting them as incidental harvest on deer hunts.

Other than steadily rising harvest numbers over the years, there is no data to reflect this increasing interest. What there is data to illustrate is an astounding archery harvest from last season. More than half of the total north Georgia bear harvest (53.3 percent) was achieved with either bows or crossbows in 2011. All but 26 of those 282 archery kills were made before the gun-opener on Oct. 22.

There are a couple of stark lessons to be learned from those statistics. First, taking a bear with a bow is very possible in north Georgia. Second, a great time to target and kill a north Georgia black bear is early in the season when they can be patterned on white oak acorns, either still in the trees or just after they fall.

Bears roam extensively seeking out food sources, and when their favorite food is in one location in abundance, you can bet there will be bears nearby. If and when that food source dwindles, the bears will move on.

Successful hunters will need to burn some boot leather scouting for both sign and food sources. But Adam recommends waiting until late August or early September to start walking the mountains.

“(By then,) You’re starting to see bears in the trees. You’ll see the white oaks have been climbed, and there’ll be branches broken on the ground. They’re starting to put down some pretty good sign,” he said.

Doing your scouting while you hunt isn’t such a bad idea, either, Adam added. The Northern Zone bear season opens with archery season Sept. 8.

“Take your bow when bow season opens, and get out there and start looking then. A lot of people like to walk ’em up—when they’re hunting with a bow, and the bears are in the trees,”said Adam. “We had some people liken this past fall to squirrel season. There were so many bears, and they’d walk up to a tree and there’d be three bears in the tree. They’re just able to slip around, and a lot of people shot them out of trees.”

Of course a lot depends on the mast crop, and you might not get lucky enough to walk up on a bear in a tree. But good bear sign is hard to miss. If you spot freshly broken limbs, bark and branches stripped off a white oak, then you’ve found a good place to set up and wait on a black bear.

Another tip Adam shared was that many years white oaks in the mountains will produce either at high altitude or at low altitude, but not both. WRD does a mast survey in late August every year, and that survey, which we will report on in a future issue of GON, could save you a lot of walking.

Where To Start?

Speaking of walking, there’s a lot of ground to cover in the 29 counties open to bear hunting in north Georgia. And a lot of it is very steep. There are more than 750,000 acres of national forest open to hunting—much of it under general state regulations. If you don’t already have a few good ridgelines, hollers or bottoms scouted out, it’s probably wise to start with bite-sized chunks—either that or hire a guide or gain access to private land (all are good ideas).

If you’re going to go at it on your own, you’ll need a good map and a GPS. To greatly increase your chances, start by eliminating most of the counties and a chunk of the public acreage open to hunting. Bear sightings may occur across most of north Georgia, but hunters should hone in on the historic core area—our little snippet of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We’ll call it “Bear Corner.”

“The bear harvest in those areas is tremendous. You’ve got some hotspots there,” said Adam. “That’s where the bears have always been.”

In the last five years, more than 80 percent of north Georgia’s bears were killed in just nine counties: Rabun, Habersham, Towns, White, Lumpkin, Union, Gilmer, Fannin and Murray. WMA harvest in those counties totaled 518 bears, while the legal harvest outside of WMAs was 1,020 bears. Adam said between 1/3 and 1/2 of the non-WMA kills likely came from Chattahoochee National Forest outside of the eight WMAs in Bear Corner.

If you’ve got some knowledge of the area and can find a honeyhole on the national forest outside a WMA, you’ll likely encounter more room to breathe. There are, after all, more than 600,000 acres of Chattahoochee National Forest in the core bear area.

But like Adam said, the bears will be where the food is, and there are a couple WMAs that produce great bear harvests every year.

Best WMA Hunts

Year after year, Cohutta WMA has the highest bear harvest of any WMA in Georgia. At 96,503 acres, it is also the state’s largest WMA by a long shot, so don’t expect to just show up and kill a bear. Do your homework, keep up with the reports and set aside plenty of time for exploration.

Straddling Murray, Fannin and Gilmer counties, Cohutta is open for archery bear hunting on a sign-in basis from Sept. 8-Oct. 9 and Oct. 15-19. Check-in firearms hunts will be held Oct. 11-14 and Nov. 28-Dec. 2. These dates coincide with deer hunts, which will give you another option while you’re out there.

Over in White, Towns and Union counties, 25,000-acre Chattahoochee WMA may not produce the total harvest Cohutta does, but it’s as good a place to kill a bear as Cohutta. Over the last five years, it’s actually been a significantly better place when total acreage is taken into consideration. There were 2.7 bears per square mile killed on Chattahoochee WMA during the last five years. For Cohutta, that figure is 1.8 bears per square mile.

This year’s archery bear hunts on Chattahoochee will be sign-in from Sept. 8-Oct. 19. Check-in firearms hunts will be held Oct. 24-27 and Dec. 5-8. A sign-in firearms hunt will be held Nov. 17-25. Those dates coincide with deer hunts.

Adam said either place will provide a pretty good opportunity to see and maybe kill a bear. And though it seems counterintuitive, archery season may be the best time to do it. By the time gun hunts roll around, bears may have left the dwindling hard mast of the WMAs.

“There’s nowhere in the Southeast, nowhere else that I know of that archery explains so much of the harvest,” Adam said. “Interest in archery hunting is on the increase when it comes to bears, and word’s out that this is a great chance for people to get out in the woods and have a good chance at a bear.”

Take a week of archery season to try for a black bear this season. You might just save someone’s garbage can or grill.

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