Arkansas Sports

Bear, elk hunting strong in 2019

Bear hunters in 2019 enjoyed a surprisingly good season, and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is closer to opening bear season in the Gulf Coastal Plain.

In a presentation to the commission Jan. 16, Myron Means -- the Game and Fish Commission's large carnivore coordinator -- said hunters killed 432 bears in 2019, mostly in the Ozarks (Bear Zone 1) and in the Ouachita Mountains (Bear Zone 2).

"Considering the mast crop that we had available across the state, it was actually a pretty good harvest for bears," Means said. "I didn't expect it to be quite that high."

Of the total, 246 bruins were males, Means said. There were 293 taken with archery equipment, compared to 57 with muzzleloaders and 82 with modern firearms.

As always, hunters killed considerably more bears in the Ozarks, especially in Madison, Johnson and Newton counties. In the Ouachitas, Montgomery, Polk and Scott counties were tops.

For 2020, Means said he will propose increasing the Bear Zone 1 quota to 500.

"The Ozarks population is still expanding despite the continued liberalization of limits and quotas," Means said. "Probably, a lot of supplemental feeding has added to the population bump in the Ozarks."

Widespread feeding for whitetailed deer also has bolstered bear populations in southern Arkansas, Means said.

Hunters annually report seeing bears on their deer leases in the Gulf Coastal Plain. Reports of bear damage to feeders and other equipment are increasing. It happens with increasing frequency on my hunting lease in northern Grant County, and our game cameras regularly photograph bears, including some large, mature bruins.

Means said a study at the University of Arkansas at Monticello is in its last year of field research to establish a population baseline on bears in southern Arkansas. Means said he is awaiting the results of the study to see whether the data support opening a bear season in the region. The UAM study is being funded by a Wildlife Restoration Program grant through taxes placed on firearms and ammunition sales.

"They hope to have us a final report in 2021," Means said. "2022 would be the next regulations cycle to set season dates and quotas."

Means said a very conservative quota would prevent killing too many bears.

"It would probably be restrictive numbers-wise," he said. "It will be small enough that the quota will probably be met on opening day."

Elk kill down

In his presentation to the commission Jan. 16, Wes Wright -- the commission's elk program coordinator -- said hunters killed substantially fewer elk in 2019 (47) than in 2018 (67).

The biggest decline was on private land. The numbers are deceptive, Wright said, because more permits were available in 2018 for private land elk hunting.

"This year was more in line with historic harvest numbers," Wright said.

Hunters killed 12% more elk on public land, and the 63% of hunters on public land killed an elk. That also is historically consistent, Wright said.

Wright said only one of the 47 elk tested positive for chronic wasting disease. It was the only CWD-positive elk from the last 114 taken by hunters. Several elk killed outside of the season have tested positive for the disease, but overall only 22 elk tested positive since CWD was first detected in Arkansas in 2016.

Wright said he plans to propose a slight reduction in the harvest goals next year to compensate for the previous three years of record harvest and additional mortality from CWD sampling. The goal is to increase numbers of elk on available habitat in northern Arkansas.

The commission also voted to donate one either-sex elk tag each to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation and Arkansas Wildlife Federation. The organizations auction the permits, which to date have raised more than $750,000 for elk conservation. The money has been used to improve a lot of elk habitat with high-quality food for elk.

"That's why elk look so robust and healthy compared to how they looked 20 years ago," Wright said.

Sports on 01/23/2020