LITTLE ROCK â€“ The number of black bears allowed for harvest in Arkansasâ€™s Bear Zone 1 was reached in just over 48 hours during the 2016 season, and most of them were taken by archery hunters, Myron Means told the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission at its monthly meeting Jan. 19.
Arkansas saw 440 total bears harvested in the most recent fall season, the third highest total on record, according Means, the AGFCâ€™s large carnivore program coordinator. Breaking that down further, 68 percent of the harvested bears were males. â€śWhat we always like to see is more males than females in the harvest,â€ť Means said.
Female black bears have between one and three cubs for each gestation period. They tend to those cubs for 17 months, and only breed every 2 years.
Means said the estimated black bear population in Arkansas is at 5,000, after bottoming out in the 1930s and only beginning a turnaround in the 1950s through the AGFCâ€™s restocking program and leveling off thanks to managed harvest. â€śWe donâ€™t really want any more bears,â€ť he told the commissioners. â€śWeâ€™re at a level where the public will accept them.â€ť
In Bear Zone 1 (situated mostly in northwest Arkansas and divided from the rest of the state by Interstate 40 to the south and U.S. Highway 67 to the east, and containing the Ozark National Forest), Means said the quota for the annual bear harvest was set at 250, or 10 percent of the estimated population in the zone. Hunters in that zone could harvest 205 bears in October and 45 bears in November. The October limit was reached by noon on Monday, two days after the season opened. The entire seasonâ€™s bear harvest of 259 included only 13 bears harvested by modern gun and only one with a muzzleloader.
Zone 2, which does not have a quota and which contains the Ouachita National Forest, saw 169 bears harvested through the season. Zone 5 had 11 bears harvested, and Zone 5A had one bear taken. Zone 5 and 5A are smaller zones in eastern and southeast Arkansas, bordered by the Mississippi River.
Means told the commissioners he believes based on the quick harvest that the estimated number of bears in Zone 1 was low, and that for the past decade the stateâ€™s black bear population has been on a slight uptick rather than stabilizing at 5,000 total. He called the September-October harvest in Zone 1 unprecedented but did note that in 2015 the quota was reached in four days, while in 2014 it was attained in six days. â€śWe are taking bears at a 10 percent figure but our reproduction rate in (Zone 1) is 15 percent.â€ť
Means said the bear team is looking at ways to adjust the 2017 season quota in Zone 1, creating quotas by method instead of by month. Under the new system, hunters using archery, muzzleloader and modern gun would each have an opportunity to harvest a bear. This proposal will be added in the annual public comment surveys in March before formal presentation to the Commission.
Zone 1 has much private land scattered in and around the Ozark National Forest, Means told commissioners. The difference between Zones 1 and 2 is largely the land ownership dynamics. In Zone 1, he said, the harvest has become â€śvery efficient through baiting.â€ť Baiting of bear has been allowed for the past 16 years, he added.
However, hunters using muzzleloaders are getting little chance to harvest bears in the zone. â€śIt has been a bone of contention with a lot of muzzleloader hunters the last several that they donâ€™t get to muzzleload hunt Zone 1. We didnâ€™t want to have overlapping quotas, an archery quota that extended into the muzzleloading quota that carried over into the modern (gun). But honestly, theyâ€™ve gotten so good at harvesting in Zone 1, I donâ€™t think weâ€™re going to have an archery overlap into the following season.â€ť
He added, â€śI understand (huntersâ€™) frustration. I bait bears, I hunt bears. I know a lot of effort goes into it, a lot of energy. It can be fairly expensive. I understand the frustration.â€ť
Adding the 45 bear muzzleloader quota also will increase the Zone 1 quota to 295 bears, which should better stabilize the population, he said.
Means also said a research project was planned to determine population density of bears in the Gulf Coastal Plain. Most of Arkansasâ€™s West Gulf Coastal Plain, which includes Zones 3 and 4, does not have an open bear season. A post-doctorate researcher from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville was to lead the project starting this month, but he moved on to a job in Alaska earlier this month. Means says the AGFC bear biologists now will try to work with researchers at the University of Arkansas or UA-Monticello and â€śsee if we can get it back rolling and get something in place.
â€śWe need to have some reasonable population density estimate or growth rate estimate for that part of the world before we open up a season,â€ť Means said. â€śBut weâ€™re going to have to open up a season pretty quick. There is no doubt there are bears there. We just donâ€™t want to have a season when theyâ€™re all primarily on private land and have a season that blows out the whole population before we can get an idea how to regulate it.â€ť