By Britt Combs Media General News Service 01/15/10 news.mync.com
The population of black bears in North Carolina has recovered from almost total absence in many of the state’s regions. Experts call it one of the great success stories of modern wildlife management.
According to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the past few decades have seen dramatic increases in both black bear population and range. Eleven thousand bears live in an area of about 10 million acres today. In 1971, only 4,000 bears lived in a 2.5 million-acre area.
The beasts that were unique to the mountains and the eastern swamp lands for most of the 20th century can today be found more evenly disbursed throughout the three regions of the state and living comfortably in suburbia and even in major cities. Gordon Warburton, the supervising wildlife biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, said North Carolina has been a leader and innovator in bringing the bears back. Along the way, wildlife management workers have learned a great deal about tracking and habitat management, as well as bears in general. “There were only pockets of bears when we began this effort back in 1969 or 1970,” he said. “We established a bag limit and limited the hunting season.” A quarter of a million acres of sanctuaries like nearby Mt. Mitchell were established. Wildlife workers began a catch and release program, tagging the animals for tracking. Hunters were required to report their kills back in 1976. That data alone has shown the recovery bears have made.
According to the N.C. Wildlife Web site, a total of 66 black bears — 40 males and 26 females — were harvested in McDowell County in the 2008-09 season. Warburton explained that, while northern McDowell has always had a robust bear population, in the southern side of the county and nearby areas, bears were “very rare in the early 1980s.” Hands-on monitoring includes what he calls “bait monitoring.” That involves hanging nice smelly sardine cans on wires “where hopefully only bears can reach them” then monitoring the sites for bear activity. The savor of smelly sardine cans is, it would seem, nigh irresistible to bears. Recently, Warburton added, researchers have been setting the lines to trigger cameras. When those experiments began, he said, about 20 percent of the sites logged visits; today 62.5 percent of then get a visit. Techniques like these give a pretty accurate picture of bear activity and confirm their population is growing — and about how bears interact with their surroundings and how people can better manage that habitat.
Biologists used to believe that one bear per square mile was the ideal limit of sustainability, but more recent figures reveal many times that figure, with no detrimental affect on the habitat. With the rise in numbers, bears have been more likely to live in close proximity to people. Warburton said he and his colleagues were surprised to learn that several black bears live in the city of Asheville. These are not visitors, but full-time residents. He said it’s not surprising, as bears will find the easiest sources of food, just like any other creature. Black bears are mostly vegetarians, he added, but foraging in garbage containers is easier than foraging in the woods. “It’s vital that people learn how to live in bear country,” he said. That means “managing food and garbage resources.”
A frequently seen scenario is bears visiting a community’s trash container at night. The simple solution: lock the container after a certain hour. The most attractive human environments to bears, he said, is vacation homes and retirement communities — anywhere people build homes in the woods and are gone for extended periods. Warburton is optimistic that the big beasts can continue to repopulate North Carolina without presenting any real danger. For all the incidents of human/bear interaction in recent years, with some homes seeing daily visits, conflict is rare and serious injury and death is very rare.
While bears as a group have more to fear from humans than humans from bears, one-on-one it’s no contest. Black bears are faster, stronger and more aware of their surroundings than humans. It is wise to avoid close contact with bears, said Warburton, because they are wild and therefore unpredictable. Feeding bears can often lead to tragedy, he said, when the bear becomes aggressive. “All it takes is one person in a neighborhood feeding bears to bring them,” he said. Whether that feeding is deliberate or accidental, through improperly secured trash, makes no difference. “As long as the bear continues to have access to food, they will stay around,” he explained.
In all likelihood, he concluded, the foothills will increasingly become bear country. The animals are very hearty and the state’s population suffers very little chronic disease. “We occasionally see trichinosis in local bears, but if you cook the meat properly you’re OK,” he stated. “And as with any carnivore, they can contract rabies, but this is very rare.”