bear by bill lea

Bear lovers and advocates like former U.S. Forest Service ranger and wildlife photographer Bill Lea are distressed because the N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission is planning to open Panthertown Valley and Bonas Defeat Bear Sanctuary to permitted bear hunts.

By Beth Lawrence


A proposed change to bear hunting rules opening Panthertown and Bonas Defeat Bear Sanctuary to hunting has some worried.

Conservancy group Friends of Panthertown issued a statement decrying the move and urged the public to speak out against it.

“We do not believe allowing bear hunts in the Panthertown-Bonas Defeat Bear Sanctuary will solve human-bear interaction concerns or is an appropriate solution given Panthertown’s traditional and current recreational uses,” the group said in a Friday statement. “As longtime stewards of the Panthertown backcountry recreation area, and as residents of the Jackson County community, Friends of Panthertown is in support of protecting the bears.

“Considering public sentiment, and based on our recent research and discussions, we believe the majority of our community and stakeholders are not comfortable opening up the Panthertown-Bonas Defeat Bear Sanctuary to bear hunting, especially with the use of dogs. With increased visitation and usage for recreation purposes, in addition to wanting to protect the bears, we think bear hunting could be dangerous in Panthertown, particularly with hunting dogs running loose across the forest with no concerns for boundaries.”

Public comment can be registered until Jan. 31. A virtual public hearing will be held Jan. 20 via Zoom. Registration is required. To register or comment visit:

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission issued a factsheet defending the proposal to allow “regulated hunting.”

In August 2018, Nantahala Ranger District formally asked NCWRC to allow bear hunting by permit in the Panthertown Bear Sanctuary, NCWRC said.

The state has previously opened two bear sanctuaries to hunting ‒ Mt. Mitchell in 2006 and Daniel Boone in 2009.

Hunting would be by permit only.

“Commission staff will determine permit quotas, number of days and maximum party size for these permit hunts,” NCWRC said.

Sanctuary hunts must follow current state regulations: a bear e-stamp is required, any bear taken must be reported and hunters must submit the bear’s tooth. There is a bag limit of one at a minimum weight of 75 pounds. Females with cubs may not be hunted.

Hunts using dogs will be allowed in sanctuaries under certain permits.

The main reason cited is a growing bear population in the region and the need to control numbers and the accompanying increase in human-bear interactions.

“There have been incidents in which humans were attacked in North Carolina, including two known incidents in 2021,” said Colleen Olfenbuttel, NCWRC Black Bear and Furbearer Biologist. “And we are observing more bold and aggressive bear behavior charging people, following people which is not normal bear behavior; normal bear behavior is to be wary of people.”

According to the NCWRC, the changes “may also assist in addressing local human-bear conflicts by locally managing bear densities, removing problem bears, and reversing human-conditioned behavior being observed in local bears.”


Bear population up

The NCWRC plan is to “stabilize” and maintain the population at “current level” which estimated the mountain bear population at 4,400 to 4,900 in 2012 but did not incorporate “the bear population on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” according to the factsheet.

NCWRC now estimates the population has risen to between 7,000 and 8,000 bears since 2012.

The factsheet references a 2005 public survey stating 77 percent of respondents wanted to keep the population at “current level” and supported regulated hunting to manage populations if wildlife management officials considered it necessary.

NCWRC credits changes to hunting rules in the Coastal Bear Management Unit with reducing population growth and lowering the number of depredation kills ‒ or kills as a result of human-bear interactions that create a threat to humans ‒ and human-bear encounters.

NCWRC’s arguments fall flat with those who favor protecting bears.

Bill Lea, retired U.S. Forest Service ranger who oversaw the wildlife program in Pisgah Ranger District, has dedicated himself to safeguarding bears.

“They’re an animal that most people don’t understand,” he said. “People are afraid of them, and a lot of times bad decisions are made … dealing with bears whether it’s a government agency like the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission down to the individual just hiking in the woods not understanding bears and misinterpreting their behaviors.”

Lea believes allowing any hunting disregards the principle of having a sanctuary and the sanctity of protected areas. He also believes hunting will not correct the problem.

“The chances of the particular (problem) bears involved being killed are statistically terrible,” he said. “They’re not going to target the problem bear even if there is a problem bear.”

Lea believes the answer is education for people using public lands and homeowners whose land abuts preserves.

Campers should be educated about proper food storage and trash disposal, and homeowners should be educated about proper trash disposal, keeping bird feeders and having outdoor grills. Having these things accessible to bears gives the bears a “reward” and enforces behaviors that increase the chance of bear encounters.

The solution, Lea said, is to have wildlife representatives make educational opportunities available such as going to homes to educate homeowners as to what might be attracting bears to their yard.

Lea believes hikers should learn that simply seeing a bear that does not automatically run doesn’t mean the bear is aggressive.

“If the bear happens to be walking along a trail, they use trails just like people do, just because the bear keeps coming doesn’t mean a bear is aggressive,” he said. “Bears can’t go anywhere today without there being people. So, they have had to learn to adjust to living with people. So, a human encounter for (the) bear is not necessarily a scary situation. A lot of times they just ignore people and go about their routine. A bear that does that, to a person who is afraid of bears who doesn’t understand bears, (the person) can interpret it as aggressive behavior. So, it’s education.”

NCWRC encourages people to “become BearWise” and educate themselves on ways to decrease encounters using

NCWRC commissioners will meet on Feb. 24. If approved, hunts are projected to begin in the 2022-23 hunting season.