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Frankfort, Kentucky – In half a century, Kentucky’s white-tailed deer herd grew from 1,000 animals to a million today. Wild turkeys increased from about 800 birds to a quarter-million, and we are now home to 10,000 free-ranging elk, the largest elk population east of the Rocky Mountains. All are now hunted in Kentucky.

A new big game species came closer to joining that list this week when legislators approved a pending regulatory amendment that will create Kentucky’s first black bear season in more than 100 years.

“Sportsmen and sportswomen of Kentucky should be very excited,” said Steven Dobey, black bear biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “Bears are now well established in eastern Kentucky and research shows that population growth has risen steadily over the last 20 years.”

Historically, the range of black bears throughout much of the eastern U.S. was diminished significantly by habitat loss due to wholesale logging and unregulated harvest. Today, however, black bears are more abundant than at any point since the mid-1900s, and Kentucky is no exception. Once logged forests have naturally matured and now offer excellent bear habitat throughout much of the southern Appalachian region of the Commonwealth.

“The 2009 hunt quota is a conservative one of 10 bears, or 5 females, whichever limit is reached first,” said Dobey. “The 2-day season will occur on the third weekend in December and bears may only be hunted within a 3-county bear zone of Harlan, Letcher, and Pike counties. Research clearly shows that Kentucky’s bear population can sustain a hunt.”

The League of Kentucky Sportsmen and others have pushed for a Kentucky black bear hunt for several years. League President Rick Allen recently testified before a legislative committee in support of creating the state’s first bear season. A decade-long University of Kentucky black bear population study is supportive as well.

The timing of this hunt is critical, as ongoing tracking of radiocollared bears shows that most females enter dens during the first week in December. As such, the hunt will concentrate efforts on male bears. The bear zone was identified based on a decade of population monitoring and research that indicates this area of the Pine, Cumberland and Black Mountain region has the highest bear densities.

The 6,000-acre Hensley-Pine Mountain Wildlife Management Area in Letcher County will be closed to all bear hunting and serve as a sanctuary for denning females. On an additional 12,421 acres surrounding this wildlife management area, bear hunting will be limited to landowners, their spouses and dependent children hunting on their own property.

Collectively, the bear sanctuary will stretch from the town of Cumberland to the northern end of the wildlife management area, bounded by KY 160 and U.S. 119 along either side of Pine Mountain.

“Since 2006, 77 percent of all radiocollared female bears have denned on Pine Mountain,” Dobey continued. “Minimizing hunting pressure in this area will protect critical denning habitat for females and greatly assist in our ongoing management efforts.”

The purchase of a $30 black bear permit will be available only to Kentucky residents. All bears harvested must be Telechecked and taken to a department-operated check station. All bear hunters will be required to call an automated telephone number by 9 p.m. after the first day of the hunt to learn whether the quota has been reached. If the quota is met on day one, then the season will be closed. Baiting for bears and the use of hounds will be prohibited.

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources manages, regulates, enforces and promotes responsible use of all fish and wildlife species, their habitats, public wildlife areas and waterways for the benefit of those resources and for public enjoyment. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, an agency of the Commerce Cabinet, has an economic impact to the state of $4.5 billion annually. For more information on the department, visit our web site at fw.ky.gov .