published Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Bears, wild hogs on the increase


by Dan Cook
  • photo
    Great Smoky Mountains National Park photo These wild hogs are rooting in the eastern end of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. An abundant food supply in 2008 has led to increases in hogs, bears, deer, wild turkeys and other Smokies wildlife.

A bumper Southern Appalachian acorn crop during the fall of 2008 kept Great Smoky Mountains National Park and North Georgia wildlife well fed. But the heavy mast enhanced the animals’ reproduction and has led to a nuisance problem for wildlife managers.

Russian wild hogs have been a Smokies woe for a century. They were brought to a nearby hunting preserve in the early part of the 1900s, eventually escaped their confines and multiplied rapidly with an ample food supply.

Unfortunately, they heavily damaged native plants as they plundered.

Professional hunters have been hired to trim the hogs’ numbers, but big acorn years have kept the animals a step ahead of the pursuit.

Innovation has provided some assistance: Trail cameras triggered by movement have helped determine hogs’ and other animals’ locations and times when they visit those areas, park spokesman Bob Miller said.

“It’s been the biggest year for taking wild hogs since 1986,” Miller noted recently. “Bear numbers were up as well as those for turkeys, deer and squirrels.”

For several years, the national park’s bear total has been estimated at 1,500, already plenty to require strong management.

Just like in the Smokies, Georgia’s bear population has grown due to acorn production, and a record bear harvest looms, according to Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division biologist Adam Hammond of Armuchee. The state’s wild bear coordinator, he now is tallying the totals from various regional sources, but he expects a big number. Last year’s statewide legal harvest was 314.

During the most recent season, at least three bears were killed that topped 500 pounds. One taken with a crossbow weighed 573.

“We have had more road kills than ever,” Hammond said. “We have had the most nuisance complaints as well.”

The previous Georgia road-kill record for bears was 39 in 2007, and by October the 2009 total had reached 46. Interstate 75 in Whitfield County and 575 near Ellijay are common locales for bear-auto collisions, Hammond said.

Georgia has relatively few bear hunters and a lack of huntable land available to the public, he pointed out. Much property is leased to clubs whose members prefer deer as wild game.

“There aren’t that many people who have a burning desire to kill a bear,” Hammond said, “and hunting land is becoming harder for folks to get. It makes bears harder to reach.”

The bear abundance could lead to even more nuisance problems when the weather warms and they leave their dens, he added.

Many people who maintain mountain vacation cottages in North Georgia don’t have air conditioning since it’s hardly needed. With doors and windows left open, screens often are the only barriers between bears and food inside. It only adds to enticement for the bears to break in.

Bird feeders and pet food, as well as garbage left unattended, also become prime targets for bears, especially in the summer.

An increase of people moving to the mountains just multiplies the problem. Caution and prevention have become more important than ever.

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