RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Wildlife officials don't usually base hunting policies on how the public feels about an animal, but the black bear seems to be different. The revered king of the forest has bounced back from near-extinction to being a nuisance in some areas. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports some states are trying to figure out if residents can live at peace with bears, or if they'd rather hunters keep the numbers of bears in check.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: In places like the Smoky Mountains, black bears have always been part of the landscape.
ELIZABETH BRYANT: Oh, my God.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, my God. That's so awesome.
FARMER: These days, visitors like Elizabeth Bryant shoot video of encounters. Here, a trio of truly adorable cubs explores the back porch of a mountainside cabin. The Bryant family watches through a screen door.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, the hot tub.
BRYANT: Where'd the mom go?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They're going to be in the hot tub now.
FARMER: But national parks are no longer the only places humans run into black bears. Numbers from the Eastern Seaboard to California have shot up in recent decades. Tennessee, for instance, now has an estimated population between four and 5,000, up from a few hundred in the 1970s. The relatively shy creatures have sauntered into areas where they're less welcome.
DARYL RATAJCZAK: We are receiving complaints from the public that say they don't want the bears there, that we need to do something to get rid of them. And we understand their feelings.
FARMER: Daryl Ratajczak is the chief of wildlife for Tennessee's agency that oversees hunting. He says bears are highly adaptable and will continue to spread if left unchecked.
RATAJCZAK: Given enough time, bears will soon be found all throughout the state of Tennessee, and we need to determine whether or not the general public wants that.
FARMER: Other states - Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland - have been gauging public tolerance of the black bear, as well. Like Tennessee, they've used telephone surveys through a company called Responsive Management. Founder Mark Damian Duda says there's still enough habitat for bears to survive, but his survey takers are seeing if states have hit what he calls a cultural carrying capacity.
MARK DAMIAN DUDA: There's really biological carrying capacity - the number of bears that the land can support - versus how many bears are acceptable to people. And sometimes, those are different.
FARMER: While black bears are on the small end of the bear family, Duda says they're still viewed as dangerous, perhaps for good reason. There have been fatal attacks. But Duda says society is also protective of bears.
DUDA: While the public supports hunting in general, hunting black bear is still supported, but not as strong as maybe hunting for deer or other species.
FARMER: Controversy has come to states that expand the hunting of black bears. Animal rights activists tried using the courts to block a week-long hunt in New Jersey. In December, they confronted sportsmen as they checked in their kills. Part of the opposition is related to the method of bear hunting, which historically depends on a pack of dogs.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)
FARMER: In Polk County, Tennessee, where some hunting is already allowed, a nervous-looking bear has been chased 30 feet into a tree. More could soon be running for their lives, and conservationists, like Ron Castle, aren't necessarily standing in the way. Black bears have begun showing up in his neck of the Tennessee woods, which he himself helped preserve. But he recognizes how much habitat his new neighbors need to survive.
RON CASTLE: Hunting would be more humane than allowing the bears to destroy their habitat and have their population collapse.
FARMER: At this point, though, the concern is more about the human population and whether people will put up with black bears in their backyards.
For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer, in Nashville.