There’s Bears Out There

September/October 2008 • Category: Features Print This Page Print This Page

Coming face-to-face with a bear on the hiking trail, or even worse the backyard, can seem like a terrifying situation. With the human population growing and starting to overflow into what was previously bear territory, these up-close encounters are becoming more common.

Over Memorial Day weekend, for example, several residents of Wake and Durham counties were shocked to see a bear roaming the streets of their otherwise quiet subdivisions. Among the surprised residents was a Holly Springs man who captured a picture of the bear looking startlingly out of place next to a white picket fence. The end of July was met with 10 black bear sightings in one week in Asheville.

“They’re just passing through,” says black bear biologist Colleen Olfenbuttel. “In the summertime, natural food sources can be scarce. They probably just smell something and wander in.”

When the bears’ natural food sources become harder to find, they start looking for reliable food wherever ever they can find it. Sometimes that means a birdfeeder, garbage cans, unattended dog food, compost piles or even an uncleaned grill.

Because of the lack of natural food sources, bears often turn to agricultural crops to placate their hunger. Corn and soybeans are popular choices for bears, especially in the eastern part of the state.

Olfenbuttel notes that bears don’t often cause problems until food is involved.

“We want to keep them from becoming habituated,” she says. When they associate people with food, they see it as a reward for being in close proximity to people. When they lose that fear, it becomes dangerous.”

While black bears are not commonly aggressive like their grizzly kin, they are still large, wild animals. The average weight for a female is around 200 pounds and a male around 300 pounds. When standing on their hind legs, they often reach six feet. The largest black bear on record was a male bear from North Carolina that clocked in at 880 pounds. They can run at about 30 miles per hour and swim well.

Despite their appearance, Olfenbuttel notes there are two main misconceptions about black bears: “Most people think they’re either a dangerous animal or a cuddly pet,” she says. “Neither is accurate. They are a wild animal, but not to be feared. They’re a wonderful resource in North Carolina.”

North Carolina has not seen any black bear attacks even though bears have been spotted in nearly every county. Olfenbuttel estimates there have only been five bear attacks on the East Coast in the past 10 years. Despite the fact black bear populations have increased over the past two decades, there still remain relatively few conflicts, mostly because the bears still view humans as a threat.

Black bears are becoming more common in the Piedmont areas of North Carolina, but they are still more prominent in the eastern part of the state and in the mountains. One way the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission regulates the bear population in those areas is through a hunting season.

“We’ve seen in those places that the hunting season preserves the bears’ natural fear of people,” Olfenbuttel says.

Most bear complaints are associated with feeding, either on purpose or through an open source, and most of the complaints can be resolved over the phone by helping the caller identify the food source and remove it. In the bear research field, Olfenbuttel says they refer to the saying, “A fed bear is a dead bear.”

“Feeding a bear rewards it for coming in close proximity to you and your home,” says Michael Juhan, a biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

“When the food becomes unavailable, the bear may resort to damaging items around your property in search of it. In addition, bears feeding on unnatural food sources around your home may cause them to lose their fear of humans and approach them—a situation that rarely ends well for the bear and could have potential safety issues for humans as well.”

“When a bear becomes a nuisance, the only option is to remove it lethally. We don’t relocate in North Carolina,” Olfenbuttel says. “We’ve found that it typically doesn’t resolve the problem and there is really no remote place to relocate them to.”

Relocated bears have been known to travel up to 400 miles to return to the location they were captured. When they are dropped off in a new environment, they often become bewildered and confused and sometimes attempt to cross highways in order to get back to their home, which can cause devastating accidents.

“I always relate it to: If someone dropped me off in Miami, I wouldn’t stay. I’d be confused, alone and out-of-place. I’d try like heck to get back home,” Olfenbuttel says.

Occasionally hikers in the woods will stumble on a bear. Olfenbuttel recommends the best thing to do in that situation is not to approach the bear, but clap your hands and alert the bear of your presence.
“Nine times out of 10, they’ll run off,” she says. “View it as an opportunity to see wildlife, but keep a respectful distance.”

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