The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission set a goal in 2013 to slow down the state’s expanding black bear population, increasing hunting opportunities in hopes of an raising the annual harvest to around 25 percent of the state’s bruins.

The Commission isn’t there yet, but it is much closer after the 2015 season, when hunters tagged a record 3,118 bears, a 20-percent increase over the 2014 season. 

Harvest statistics released in June indicated that 1,880 bears were killed in 37 eastern counties, 39 were tagged in 38 Piedmont counties and 1,199 in 25 mountain counties. Three coastal counties led the harvest: Tyrrell with 264, Hyde with 233 and Beaufort with 201. Madison County hunters tagged the most mountain bears, 120, followed by Haywood with 117 and Graham with 116.

The Commission has estimated the statewide bear population at around 15,000 animals.

Over the past 10 years, North Carolina bear harvests have averaged around 2,500 per year, making the 2015 harvest 18.8-percent above the norm. The increase in the 2015 harvest, 597 animals, was the largest single-season bump on record. In the past, season with large bear harvests have usually been followed by seasons with noticeable decline. Biologists credited a huge mast crop, one of the largest on record, as contributing to the unusually low 2014 harvest.

Most of the increase in the harvest was in the mountains, where hunters almost doubled the 2014 harvest of 634 bears. Coastal hunters killed 20 more bears in 2015 than in 2014. Hunters in the Piedmont, who have largely had a bear season for only two years, took almost double the 20 they killed in 2014.

The percentage of female bears, sows, in the harvest, was consistent with harvest over the past handful of years, even smaller in the mountains. Several bear-hunting conservation groups had predicted that when North Carolina relaxed its restrictions on bear-baiting and liberalized bear season before the 2014 season that a huge increase in the number of sows killed would take place. In fact, the percentage of sows in the coastal harvest was almost identical to figures from 2012, 2013 and 2014. The percentage of sows in the mountain harvest was 35 percent last season, down from an average of 41 percent over the same three-year period.