Local/Regional News
4:42 pm
Mon March 19, 2012

Kentucky Wildlife Commission Expands Bear Hunting Season

FRANKFORT, Ky.    Hunters persuaded the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission on Monday to unanimously support a proposal to set aside six weeks to chase black bears with dogs, including one week when the bruins they corner can be shot.

Commissioners had scrapped that proposal two weeks ago after the Humane Society of the United States criticized the practice as cruel and unsporting. But they reversed themselves in a special meeting at the Department of Fish and Wildlife headquarters in Frankfort, pleasing hunters and causing consternation for animal rights groups.

The regulation would restrict the chases to a 45,000-acre tract in Harlan County, a 43,000-acre tract in Bell County and a 20,000-acre tract in Letcher County. It also restricts the size of each hunting party to no more than five people and eight dogs, a provision that animal rights activist Andrew Johnson found objectionable.

"What about respect for the animals? These bears are chased, often driven away from their families, driven into trees by barking, vicious dogs," Johnson said. "You have five people and eight dogs against one bear. I believe that directly contradicts your aim of a fair chase. And it's not ethical or moral in any sense of the words."

Kentucky becomes one of fewer than 20 states that allow hunters to chase bears with dogs.

Hunters who attended the standing-room only meeting in a small conference room repeated their arguments that some of the bears have become brazen and that chasing them would instill fear of humans and dogs that could keep them out of residential areas.

Bear hunter Jim Caldwell, a past president of the Kentucky Houndsmen Association, said chasing bears has widespread support among sportsmen's groups across the state.

Caldwell said objections raised by animal rights groups about killing sows and cubs are off base.

"If there's a track on the ground with a bear and a cub, they won't even turn their hounds on it," he said.

The bear issue pitted hunters against the Humane Society of the United States in the latest of a long line of face-offs over the years. As of March 5, the Humane Society was winning this particular battle. Commissioners had decided at that point to set aside only one week for the hunters, known as houndsmen, to chase bears. They had refused to allow them to shoot any bears.

"We were pretty happy after the last meeting that there was going to be a chase only," said the Humane Society's Kentucky director, Pam Rogers. "We weren't thrilled, but we were fairly happy. Now that we're going to chase and kill them, and we're going to extend the chase season to when the bears will have cubs, we're not happy."

The number of bears that could be shot by the houndsmen depends on how many bears are killed during the regular December hunting season. The state allows a quota of 10 bears to be killed by traditional gun hunters, but they have never gotten that many. The houndsmen would be allowed to finish the quota. So, if gun hunters killed only four bears, as they did last year, the houndsmen could kill up to six.

State Wildlife Director Karen Waldrop said houndsmen could shoot the bears between Dec. 17 and Dec. 21. The dates established for simply chasing the bears runs from Aug. 1 to Aug. 31 and from Dec. 24 to Dec. 28.

More than a century ago, bears thrived in Kentucky's mountain region, but over-hunting and habitat loss led to their disappearance. Over the past 20 years, they have ventured back into Kentucky from other states.

For about five years, the hunters have been pressing state wildlife officials to approve a chase season for bears in the state's Appalachian region. There, some of the animals have been raiding garbage cans, eating from back porch pet food bowls, and, in one instance, mauling a tourist in the Red River Gorge.