Last December, a hunter in Georgetown County killed the Lowcountry’s first legally hunted bear in at least 40 years.

The nearly 200-pound female (sow) was shot and killed while entering an agricultural field at 4 p.m., according to Deanna Ruth, a wildlife biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

“That was a good-sized sow,” Ruth said. “Most range from 120 to 150 pounds.”

Males grow much larger. Hunters in coastal North Carolina have killed bears upward of 700 pounds, Ruth said.

“We’ve had bears over 500 pounds hit by vehicles in George- town County,” Ruth said.

One hundred and ninety-seven hunters entered last year’s bear tag drawing. They were competing for a total of 30 tags, 10 each for Horry, Georgetown and Williamsburg counties — the only coastal counties were bear hunting is now legal.

Hunters hoping to give it a shot this winter have until Friday (Nov. 2) to apply for this year’s bear tags, again just 10 for each of those three counties.

The coastal black bear season runs Dec. 1-15. Here are the regulations:

The nonrefundable application fee is $10. Those selected will have to purchase a tag at a cost of $25 for residents and $100 for nonresidents.

The tag will only be valid for one of the three counties so applicants should rank the counties in order of preference.

Successful applicants must possess a 2012-2013 Hunting License and Big Game Permit.

Tags can be used on private land and Wildlife Management Areas (with WMA permit). All WMA regulations apply when hunting on public land.

Hunting with dogs or over bait is prohibited

Hunters can’t kill sows with cubs or bears weighing 100 pounds or less.

Legal weapons include archery equipment (arrows or bolts must have expandable broadheads), muzzleloaders, centerfire rifles (.270 caliber and greater), handguns (.44 caliber and greater), and shotguns with slugs or buckshot.

Bear must be tagged before being moved from point of kill. A kill must be reported by telephone within 12 hours, preferably sooner.

All persons drawn for the hunt must submit a harvest report, regardless if a bear was harvested or not, no later than Dec. 22 and return the unused tag.

Failure to report and/or return unused tags will result in the hunter being ineligible for next year’s drawing.

Species on the rebound

Before 2011, South Carolina had never managed an official bear hunting season, Ruth said. A law enacted in the 1920s allowed anyone to kill bears at any time.

“That’s why our bear population took a nose dive,” she said.

In the 1960s, the state declared the black bear a game species, a move that offered some protection to the remaining population and established hunting seasons in the Upstate. Regular bear hunting seasons continue in western South Carolina, with more than 300 kills reported in the past five years alone.

Black bears have moved back into the Lowcountry in recent years, many lumbering south from vast wilderness areas in eastern North Carolina.

With little hunting pressure, black bears started to settled back into coastal South Carolina. In 2011, DNR counted 31 reported bear sightings in Horry County and 15 sightings in Georgetown County. Eighteen bears were reported killed along coastal highways last year.

Black bears take advantage of the same natural forage consumed by whitetail deer, including acorns, longleaf pine nuts and agricultural crops such as corn, soybeans, peanuts, turnips and sugar beats. About 80 percent of a bear’s natural diet consists of berries, nuts and plant matter.

The omnivores round out their diets by turning over logs for insects and scavenging animals carcasses and human refuse.

“They’re very opportunistic,” Ruth said. “They’ll eat McDonalds, they’ll eat Logan’s Roadhouse dumpster food.”

Local black bears aren’t highly predatory — not like grizzly bears, Ruth said — but they might occasionally kill and eat a small, sick or otherwise dying animal.

Challenging hunt

Coastal bear hunting regulations can lead to tricky situations for Lowcountry big game hunters.

Baiting deer remains legal in coastal counties, and the bear and deer seasons coincide in early December. In fact, many hunters first learn of a bear’s presence on their hunting land through the use of game cameras set up at corn piles and automatic feeders. Yet any bears captured by these cameras would be off-limits, due to the anti-baiting rule.

The bottom line, according to DNR Sgt. Angus MacBride, is that if a hunter knows or suspects that a bear is frequenting a deer feeder, it shouldn’t be hunted.

The regulations do not set a minimum distance from a feeder for bear hunting, but “if you know that bear is traveling to and from your feeder and you’re trying to waylay that bear before it gets to the feeder, than you’re not doing it properly,” MacBride said.

Both MacBride and Ruth said the regulations are designed to give hunters an authentic experience while offering some protection to the rebuilding bear population. Hunters who draw a tag receive information to help them scout for bear travel corridors and identify bear scat (droppings), paw prints and territorial markings. Bears typically scratch, bite and leave sent at certain trees, Ruth said.

“It’s kind of like hunting scrapes for bucks,” Ruth said. “You know that deer’s going to come because he’s visiting that scrape. That’s what these bears are doing, too.

As hunters gain more expeienc along the coast, success rates should rise, she said.

“I think we’ll see more bears taken, but it will depend on how savvy our hunters are. It’s just a new game down here.”

Some hunters already have learned to concentrate their efforts around agricultural fields — planted crops aren’t considered “bait” under the law. Hunters might even find willing partners in the local farming community.

“That might give the farmer a little relief, if he’s got a bear that’s decimated an ag field,” MacBride said. “We’ve seen that in peanut fields and beans fields, where a bear comes in and just makes himself at home.”

Ruth thinks that as the black bear population grows, these farming-related hunting opportunities will increase.

“You may see some people leasing ag fields,” she said. “It may even become a little cottage industry.”

For bear tag applications and more information on bear habits, habitats and regulations, visit dnr.sc.gov.

Reach Matt Winter, Tideline magazine editor, at 843-937-5568 or matt@tidelinemagazine.com.