SC wants hunters to kill more bears near Myrtle Beach

South Carolina legislators want hunters to kill more bears near tourist-jammed Myrtle Beach to reduce conflicts between people and the big animals.

The Legislature is close to approving a bill that would allow virtually anyone wanting to kill a black bear to get state approval during the fall hunting season in Horry, Georgetown and Williamsburg counties.

Under the current system, the state holds a drawing to see who gains the right to hunt bears – but that has limited the number of hunters needed to adequately cull the bear population, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. The new plan would provide approvals, or tags, to most people who sign up. Lawmakers hope that will encourage more bear hunting during the season on the coast.

“If we don’t harvest them, they get out in the road, and they get hit and they become nuisances,’’ state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said during a Senate committee meeting Wednesday. “There’s a lot of reasons to have management by harvest.’’

In the six years since the state legalized bear hunting near Myrtle Beach, hunters have killed 13 black bears total. Last fall, only three bears were killed, wildlife officials said. The state needs to kill about 30 a year to keep the population in check, according to the DNR. There has not been “enough harvest to manage the population,’’ said Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston.

Black bears are elusive creatures that can weigh nearly 600 pounds in South Carolina. They feed mostly on berries and nuts, but also will eat insects and meat. DNR officials say bears are expanding their range across South Carolina, but resident populations are concentrated in the mountains northwest of Greenville and on the swampy northern coast.

Despite its urban nature, the Myrtle Beach area has substantial pockets of woodlands that harbor about 300 black bears, the state’s second largest population. Bears wander into backyards, onto golf courses and across area highways, where motorists sometimes collide with the shy bruins.

Under the plan, the DNR would end the bear hunt after 30 were killed, regardless of how many hunters had been approved for hunting.

Last year, only 170 of the 250 people who entered the drawing to hunt bears were chosen to do so. Of the 170 chosen, more than 60 did not actually participate, wildlife officials said. And of those who did participate, many were looking for only the largest bears, meaning they didn’t shoot the smaller ones, the DNR’s Charles Ruth said.

Not everyone was comfortable with the plan to increase hunting, including the Humane Society of the U.S. and state Sen. Vincent Sheheen. Sheheen, D-Kershaw, questioned whether killing 30 bears every year was too much for the bear population to withstand.

“As somebody who likes to have a diversity of wildlife in our state, I’m concerned that as we see the encroaching human population and development, that we’re going to be squeezing them out,’’ Sheheen said. “I’m not sure I want to be culling bears because of that. Would we eventually have no bears in the area?”

Haley Stewart, an official with the Humane Society of the U.S., questioned whether increasing hunting would have any measurable affect on the bear population. Bears that become nuisances could be relocated, rather than killed, she said.

“Just increasing the number of bears killed is not a sound solution,’’ Stewart said.

But Ruth said research shows that killing 30 bears annually will not hurt the local population.

“What we’re talking about is a very limited harvest,’’ Ruth said.

South Carolina has a two-week hunting season for bears in the mountains of Oconee, Pickens and Greenville counties each October, but that season would not be affected by the bill. The mountain season includes a week in which hunters can use dogs to chase bears and a week in which they cannot use dogs. Far more bears are killed each year in the mountains than on the coast. The coastal hunting season, which ran from Oct. 24-Nov. 5 of last year, does not allow the use of dogs to hunt bears.

The bill, H 3601, has passed the House and is before the Senate for a vote.