Bear hunting has changed in Arkansas. More than ever before are being taken by hunters, the majority are doing it with archery, and they are doing it on private, not public, land.
When bear hunting started in the state 30 years ago after being closed for a half century, the bears were found by hunters in the Ozark Mountains, nearly all in the Ozark National Forest. Then the Ouachita Mountains opened to bear hunting. In more recent times, hunting was expanded to the lower White River country of southeast Arkansas.
Myron Means, the bear program coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, said recently that 533 bears were checked by hunters last fall, and 433 of these came off private land. An even 100 were from public land.
He had a ready explanation. AGFC regulations now allow the use of bait for bear hunting on private land but not on public land.
Hunters are making use of the line from a baseball movie: "Build it and they will come." It’s "bait it and they will come" for bear hunting.
Open a few cans of sardines, dump them on the ground then get in a stand and wait. Get a fishing buddy to save fish heads and entrails for you to use as bear bait. Hunters may use bacon grease instead of fish. If it smells, the bears will find it.
In many other states with more bear hunting and a longer history of it, baiting is commonly used, along with dogs for tracking and finding the bears. Dogs are not allowed in Arkansas for bear hunting.
The bait put out by hunters was more effective than usual last fall, Means said, because there was a shortage of wild food for the animals. This food, called mast, is in both hard and soft forms. Nuts, especially acorns, are hard mast. Berries are a form of soft mast, and Arkansas bears go for poke berries huckleberries and any other type of berries they can find.
A somewhat surprising statistic given by Means was that more than two-thirds of the bears taken in 2009 were by hunters using archery gear — long bows, compound bows and crossbows. Last fall, 69 percent were taken with archery and 31 percent with firearms – modern guns and muzzle-loaders.
The biggest number of bears were killed early in the archery season, Means said, which opened Sept. 15 in the Ouachita Mountains and Oct. 1 in the Ozark Mountains.
The state is divided into several bear zones. Zone 1, the Ozark Mountains, had 394 bears taken by hunters in 2009, Means said. Zone 2, the Ouachita Mountains, had 111 bears checked. Zone 5 in southeast Arkansas had 20 and Zone 5A, also in southeast Arkansas, had 8. The rest of Arkansas, classified as Bear Zones 3 and 4, is closed to bear hunting.
The sharp increase in the number of bears taken by hunters raised a flag for wildlife managers or at least a caution note. Are too many bears being killed? Should hunting, which took that sharp jump when the use of bait was made legal, be modified?
Means recommended a quota be brought back for Zone 1, the Ozark Mountains, for bear season, with hunting to end when a pre-set quota was reached. This was the rule in past years. Reproduction for bears declined with the shortage of natural food, Means said.
Zone 2, the Ouachita Mountain, needs more bears to be taken by hunters, Means said. He recommended a two-day firearms bear hunt in that zone with the opening of archery season. Quotas may need to be reduced in the two southeast Arkansas zones, he added.
Arkansas, known as the Bear State in pioneer times, shut down bear hunting in the early 1930s. Bear populations were restored beginning in 1958, and the numbers increased so hunting was resumed in 1980.