published Sunday, May 20th, 2012

Raccoon hunting protected in Polk County

BENTON, Tenn. -- A letter from Polk County commissioners strongly opposed to the planned elimination of raccoon hunting season in the Cherokee National Forest may have turned the tide.

Last week, Polk commissioners voiced their concerns in a letter to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission, which met in Nashville on Thursday and Friday to establish the state's 2012-13 hunting seasons.

"Raccoon hunting is a lifelong tradition in Polk County," Commissioner Daren Waters said. "I've been hunting since I was a teenager."

Commissioners Waters and John Pippenger said the U.S. Forest Service was the driving force pushing for the elimination of raccoon hunting season next year. They cited conversations and correspondence with wildlife officials.

However, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency announced Friday that it will allow a raccoon hunting season in the Ocoee bear reserve area, although new limitations are in place. The 2013 season will last only for the month of January, and hunters may not have more than two dogs per vehicle, the agency announced.

The letter from the Polk County Commission may have made a deep impression, said Cecil Harden, chairman of one of the county's hunting clubs who attended the TWRC public meeting on Friday.

Forest Service acting forest supervisor Jeffrey Vail had written to TWRA Executive Director Ed Carter that the hunting season -- Jan. 1 to Feb. 28 -- needed to be canceled because of suspicious hunting activity within the bear reserve.

There were "numerous instances" of hunters bringing 15 or more dogs, often bear- and hog-hunting breeds, into the bear reserves during raccoon season. The numbers and types of dogs seemed quite excessive for raccoon hunting, the letter noted.

"One of the purposes of the bear reserves is to give the breeding populations of bears a safe haven from human pressures," Vail wrote. "The institution of the prolonged raccoon hunting season and the subsequent numbers of dogs that are released into the area severely impact these benefits."

But several Polk County commissioners said Vail's reasoning did not add up.

The Forest Service letter did not mention that anyone was arrested, Waters said. The commissioner said it would be easy enough to determine if someone was hunting bigger game than raccoons, since regulations allow only a .22-caliber weapon. He questioned whether hunters would pursue bear or wild boar with such a small rifle.

"That would be the equivalent of the sheriff saying, 'We're spending too much time writing tickets, therefore I'm outlawing vehicles,'" Commissioner Greg Brooks said.

Commissioners also questioned whether an unfair bias was placed against hunters in regard to the Cherokee National Forest.

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