Bear hunter involved in incident between Montreat residents and hunting dogs weighs in
Montreat's growing bear population brought hunting dogs to town with hunters whose practices have been widely criticized. One of them decided to speak out.
"I'm one of the guys that had dogs up there," said Matthew Austin, a bear hunter for the past 20 years. "There's some assumptions made from people talking who weren't even there."
Austin said he was involved in the incident that sparked the debate and push for changes to town laws regarding hunting dogs. According to Montreat commissioners, four instances of hunting dogs chasing bears through town were reported with at least one instance of children being put at risk.
"I had never heard of anybody thinking they were in any kind of danger," Austin said. "The dogs are human friendly. They're not going to come out and attack your kids."
Given that the incident took place around the holidays on Jan. 1, the last day of the bear hunting season, Austin attributed criticism of his group to an increase in spectators.
Now, nearly six months later, David Arrant, chief of police in Montreat, said while he would never want to diminish the fears of town residents, he didn't think incidents such as this were likely to continue next season.
"As far as this business of a marauding pack of dogs, it was just unusual," Arrant said. "There was a series of things lining up for a perfect storm kind of thing."
Multiple officers were out with COVID-19, Arrant said, leaving a lack of law enforcement presence in town. He said there was also unfamiliarity with the hunting group because they were not affiliated with the Mount Mitchell Bear Hunting Club, a neighborly organization with Montreat.
Austin said he's familiar with town ordinances, how hunters are prohibited from releasing dogs within Montreat. At a meeting on May 19 involving wildlife officials, town commissioners, other bear hunters and law enforcement, reports said Austin's group disobeyed these laws.
"As far as the whole 'Oh they turned dogs loose in Montreat?' No we didn't," Austin said. "We're aware that we can't kill that bear in Montreat."
Mason Blake, the town commissioner leading the effort to ensure safe hunting practices, said the town aims to prevent unsafe incidents from occurring without unfairly penalizing the bear hunting community.
"We're not against bear hunting," Blake said. "But what we must do is protect our citizens and particularly our children against dogs running amuck in the residential neighborhoods of Montreat."
The town continues to be open to suggestions from the bear hunting community, according to Blake. Toward the end of the summer, Blake hopes to have more solidified plans in place for how to approach the bear hunting season when it begins in the fall.
Arrant said the police department received two calls at the end of December related to bear hunters. Arrant said the serious calls began Jan. 1, the day of the incident with Austin's group. However, Montreat law enforcement never had any reports of dogs being released in town, according to Arrant.
"Point of fact, we never got calls on that," Arrant said. "The business of a rude interaction, again, no police witness on that."
According to Austin, his group of hunters turned dogs loose on game land. He said the dogs chased the bear through the woods toward Montreat.
The hunters were in contact with Montreat law enforcement the entire time, Austin said, adding he's never had to have law enforcement intervene before. As a long time hunting dog owner, Austin said he's familiar with the laws outlined by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
"The laws state that if your dogs go on private property, you have to contact the property owner to get permission to go retrieve your dogs," Austin said.
Mindy Wharton, a representative from NC Wildlife, said while it isn't illegal to retrieve hunting dogs from private property, the commission recommends obtaining permission from property owners.
"Black bears have been in and around residential areas for a long time," Wharton said in an email. "With increased bear populations and increased human populations, residents are seeing more bears in certain areas."
With more than 16,000 bears in North Carolina, according to Wharton, some black bears have begun losing natural wariness of humans.
Given the majority of private property in Montreat, Arrant said as it stands, the property owners get to decide how to handle each situation. He said if a property owner wants everyone off their property, hunters and law enforcement have to comply.
"That's certainly up to the individual property owners whether they find that palpable or not," Arrant said. "We want to quell the problem as quickly as possible."
In contrast to statements made by Jim Gibbs, president of the Mount Mitchell Bear Hunting Club at the May 19 meeting, Austin said hunters often end up distanced from hunting dogs as they chase a bear. He said staying in contact with the town is essential when running a bear.
"The issue with trying to catch the dogs in this situation is if we can't get the bear to stop, we can't get the dogs to stop," Austin said. "Anytime we could get close enough to catch dogs, we would."
Austin said bears have become more used to people. He said if property owners will allow hunters to go in and catch the dogs as they come into town, he would be glad to answer questions and discuss after the dogs have been caught.
"The sooner we can get in there to catch them, the sooner we can get out of there," Austin said. "The problem we were having that day was we were having people wanting to stop and talk to us."
Blake mentioned preventative ideas such as having security cameras mounted at the Montreat gate in order to monitor hunting vehicles so hunters can be identified should an incident occur. He also discussed the possibility of approving a BearWise program to ensure safe bear practices for residents.
Consulting law enforcement and the district attorney's office will need to be done before deciding on a concrete plan, according to Blake.
"We don't just want to pass a law," Blake said. "If we have a regulation, we want to be able to make enforceable and make it effective."
Arrant said the town won't know for sure if this sort of event will happen again, but he's confident it won't. He described the events as "just a fluke."
"Now we're following a couple months later with 'We need to do more,'" Arrant said. "How do we know we haven't done enough already since we haven't put this thing out to test drive?"
Ezra Maille covers the town of Black Mountain, Montreat and the Swannanoa Valley. Reach him at 828-230-3324 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Please support local journalism with access to more breaking news by subscribing.