800 black bears now populate Lowcountry

A large black bear roams just outside the town of Hollywood in this 2009 photograph. credit: Provided by S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

The wildlife biologist makes no bones about it: The coastal bear hunting season is provided for hunters, not black bear management.

But it might as well be for both. More than 800 black bears are now estimated to inhabit the coast, spread out over every county, including Charleston, Dorchester and Berkeley. And they’re not too far from your home.

A reproducing population has established itself in Ravenel, enough bears that cameras and sightings have confirmed sows with cubs and young and adult males, said wildlife biologist Deanna Ruth of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Claud Wessinger knows. The trail camera he set out for deer a few weeks back picked up a large male bear munching the corn bait, and settling down for a spell to do it.

Sure, this was Santee River country near the Francis Marion National Forest, known bear territory. But the family hunting tract is within shouting distance of the fire station at Jamestown.

“Did you see him lying on the corn pile? It was like, ‘This is mine. I’m staying here,’” Wessinger said after sending photos.

That, as much as anything, might explain what biologists like Ruth are calling an exponential increase of bears in not just South Carolina, but the entire Southeast.

“We don’t know why. But we keep coming back to unlimited food resources,” she said.

That’s sweet corn fields, bird feeders, loose garbage cans, deer corn, even peanut crops.

“Let me tell you something: Bears love peanuts,” Ruth said ruefully.

Biologists guesstimated as few as 100 bears in the coastal counties as recently as a few years ago. Then more than 40 were killed by cars in Horry County in a single year. Uh oh, time to re-evaluate.

The 800 number came from a detailed 2008-2011 survey.

“There’s more in this area now than there were,” Wessinger said. “I’m surprised they’re so close to populated areas. It doesn’t bother me; I just think there needs to be more awareness in the community.”

The hunting season was launched in 2011 to accommodate sports hunters and farmers who were watching crops ravaged.

The two-week season, held in Horry, Georgetown and Williamsburg counties, is under way.

It’s limited to 30 hunters chosen in a blind lottery.

The funny thing is, even though bears are spotted all the time in those farm fields, the 30 hunters last year came back with a total of ... one bear.

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