Montreat works to prevent dangerous bear hunting practices, cites children in danger

Ezra Maille
Black Mountain News

Chaos in residential areas. Children being put at risk.

Unsafe bear hunting practices are making some residents of forested Montreat uneasy. And officials are taking notice.

Montreat held a meeting May 19 to discuss solutions to problems created by bear hunting dogs, citing dangerous incidents in the beginning of January.

The meeting was made up of Erin Woriax, a representative of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission; Jim Gibbs, president of the Mt. Mitchell Bear Hunting Club; David Arrant, Montreat police chief; Tanner Pickett, representing the Mountain Retreat Association; Tom Widmer, mayor pro tem; commissioners Mason Blake, Jane Alexander and Kent Otto; and three town residents. 

Commissioner Mason Blake led the round table discussion on May 19 at Montreat Town Hall.

Blake led the roundtable discussion, saying he hoped the meeting would foster ideas that could lead to an actionable solution for the Board of Commissioners. 

"This meeting is for talking," Blake said. "The problem isn't our dog control ordinance. The problem isn't dogs in general. The problem is specific incidents that occurred that involved multiple dogs."

According to commissioners, the meeting was held in response to four incidents involving hunting dogs chasing bears through town, creating dangerous situations where in at least one incident, children were put at risk. 

"It didn't just happen anywhere in Montreat. The problem happened and was problematic because it happened in residential areas," Blake said. "It wasn't just dogs, it was hunting dogs chasing bears."

Discharging a firearm within the town of Montreat is illegal, according to Arrant. While hunters are supposed to catch dogs before they enter town, those involved in the incidents released dogs in residential areas and chased bears through town so they could shoot them outside town limits.

Multiple suggestions were brought up at the meeting to solve the problem including fines, stricter trespassing ordinances and requiring hunters to register personal information with Town Hall.

Gibbs said the incidents cited did not involve his group, that the hunters who came in without regard for town residents were irresponsible, unlike the members of his club. He also warned against residents confronting these other hunters, saying they will be armed and likely won't take kindly to confrontation. 

A family of bears near the garden of Lyndall Noyles-Brownell in 2019.

Current language only allows Montreat police to give hunters a verbal warning or impound hunting dogs, though Blake said neither the town or the county has facilities to do so. A second offense constitutes a written warning. After a year, the system resets and only a verbal warning can be issued.

"We've got a dangerous situation and we don't really have an effective way for the town to deal with it," Blake said. "It's very unique."

According to commissioners and verified by Woriax, the town cannot pass a law stating all bear hunting is prohibited as it would have to go through the General Assembly. 

Though the commissioners have no intention of overhauling the town's entire animal control ordinance, Blake said something must change to ensure safety of town residents and visitors in relation to bear hunting and bear hunting dogs.

The county has a 32-page animal control ordinance. Montreat's fits barely two pages. Blake said he doesn't intend to create a lengthy new ordinance, just something effective.

Members of the Mt. Mitchell Bear Hunting Club currently carry identification cards and follow best practices to be respectful of the town, according to Gibbs. He said the club would be open to adding decals on hunting trucks to further identify themselves.

"We don't want to be a part of the problem," Gibbs said. 

Widmer agreed that Gibbs' club has been good neighbors and hasn't contributed to the problem.

Jim Gibbs, president of the Mt. Mitchell Bear Hunting Club, spoke about best practices to hunting at the meeting.

Though the club has roughly 70 members, according to Gibbs, only about 10 own dogs. He said bear dogs can be very skittish and typically require the owners to catch them. 

Using GPS systems while hunting, Gibbs said trackers show the location of dogs and property lines. He said the hunters involved in the problematic incidents should have known better. 

In these incidents, residents reported dogs chasing close behind a bear, resulting in chaos in residential areas. Gibbs said this typically isn't the case, that dogs chase much farther behind bears so as to be easier to catch before they cross into a forbidden area.

"These hunters that came in from outside turned on a bear in Montreat," Gibbs said. "They caught that bear here in Montreat. Whereas typically, when you turn on a bear, say, in McDowell County, it may run 5, 10 miles and pass through Montreat. Those dogs are not typically close to the bear."

Members of his club being familiar with these hunters, Gibbs said he would spread the word that their actions in Montreat will not be tolerated. 

Pickett said hunting on MRA property is prohibited, ruling out a sizeable area of town. 

Woriax and Gibbs recommended residents also follow best bear practices to prevent additional confrontation. 

"When bears get used to coming into town, they're going to come into town," Gibbs said.

Ezra Maille covers the town of Black Mountain, Montreat and the Swannanoa Valley. Reach him at 828-230-3324 or emaille@blackmountainnews.com. Please support local journalism with access to more breaking news by subscribing.