The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) wants to know if you want bears in your backyard, or not. That's the primary purpose of a $30,000 telephone survey recently commissioned by TWRA.
TWRA Wildlife Chief Daryl Ratajczak outlined the survey before the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission (TWRC) meeting in Chattanooga Thursday and Friday. Ratajczak explained that Tennessee's population of bears is expanding dramatically beyond their historic range in far East Tennessee. He says there are now documented bear sightings, some numerous, in most counties extending to the western edge of the Cumberland Plateau. He says it is not impossible that bears could someday range into Middle and West Tennessee.
TWRA wants to know what the public thinks about that so it can better development a long-range bear management plan.
"We call it social carrying capacity,” said Ratajczak.
Carrying capacity is how many wild animals a given habitat will support.
"We sort of know what the biological carrying capacity is," said Ratajczak. "But we need to know whether people will tolerate bears in their backyards in areas where there have never been bears before."
Partly because of the expanding population, Tennessee bear hunters harvested a record number of bears in the most recent hunting season, 581, surpassing the previous mark of 573 set in 2009.
The scientific, random telephone survey underway will give biologists a better idea of what Tennesseans think about increasing the range of the black bear in the state.
"People love going to the Smokies and seeing bears," he said, "but sometimes they feel very differently when the bears show up in their own backyards."
The survey will gauge feelings in three different geographic areas — the historic black bear range in far East Tennessee, the expanded range of roaming bears which includes the Chattanooga area and the Cumberland Plateau, and the Middle and West Tennessee areas where bears haven't been seen yet.
The survey results are expected to be available sometime in March, before the TWRC sets the 2012 bear hunting seasons.
In other action, TWRA is considering adding a special youth permit to the existing elk hunting opportunities at the Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area. They expect to provide five bull elk permits by a lottery-style drawing but are developing plans to provide a sixth permit exclusively for a young hunter between the ages of 13-16. TWRC is expected to vote on that measure at its February meeting.
Elk were reintroduced to Tennessee in 2001 and the population, estimated at 300, is experiencing a growth of about eight percent per year.
The Commission did pass a rule change on computerized waterfowl blind drawings for certain areas, including Chickamauga WMA. This year up to five hunters can apply as a party, and any one of the five may use the blind site on their assigned dates.
Previously, applicants were drawn individually, and that individual had to be present or no one could hunt the site. Ratajczak said they were getting a larger number of "no shows" as a result. Unlike other draw hunts however, if five hunters apply, they will have a corresponding five chances to be selected.