Beware the bears? Some bare facts from wildlife experts

Both adolescent and adult American black bears are studied to determine their habits and to establish adequate management plans. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Urban/Suburban Bear Study

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer 

American black bears are a reality in Western North Carolina. This mother bear was seen recently at the edge of Hwy. 64 just before the Appalachian Trail at Winding Stair. She had with her two cubs, which she hurried up the cliff and out of sight.

Run when you see them? Don’t run? Feed them? Avoid them? The American black bear (Ursus americanus) is a reality in Macon County and the Western North Carolina region. While not quite as prolific as coyotes, raccoons or deer, black bear sightings are common – especially during this time of year when they are eating their fill in preparation for hibernation. And many residents harbor misconceptions and misinformation regarding these large, striking, ancient creatures. 

Around 70,000 black bears exist just in the Southeastern United States and North Carolina is at at the top of the list with between 17,000 and 20,000. 

Bears have sharp curved claws to allow them to both climb trees and feed on insects and grubs in decaying logs and trees; they can run up to 35 mph; they eat up to 20,000 calories in the fall – as opposed to around 5,000 in spring and summer months; and they can grow to five or six feet in length and weigh up to 300 pounds (females) and 800 pounds (males). 

Atlanta-based Mike Piccirilli said the number of black bears in the region is studied closely to determine the number of hunting licenses granted annually. Piccirilli is the chief officer of the Wildlife and Sports Fishing Restoration Program for the South Atlantic Gulf Region, Fish & Wildlife Service. His job with the Restoration Program is to evaluate how monies collected through excise taxes on hunting and fishing products should be allocated for states’ program apportionments. 

He said, “North Carolina will come to us to fund such programs as”:

– Wildlife Management Cooperative Research Projects, with the objective, “To monitor black bear populations and trends using existing survey techniques, while also investigating new methods for monitoring efforts, in order to estimate population size and density and ultimately stabilize the mountain bear population at the current level.”

– Wildlife Management Cooperative Research Projects with the objective, “Quantify and analyze landscape attributes, diet, spatial movement, public perception, management behaviors, bear-human encounters, reproductive success, and timing of den entry and emergence.”

North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has in place a detailed black bear management plan available to the public at its site at Upcoming bear hunting season is Oct. 14 – Nov. 23, 2019, and Dec. 16, 2019 – Jan. 1, 2020.

“It is important that hunters participate because it’s the hunters who buy a hunting license and purchase equipment,” said Piccirilli, noting the irony of the situation. “It’s essentially the hunters that are funding these programs, and it’s important that the game and fish agencies make important scientific decisions so they can monitor hunting and the bear populations.”

Because of their size, people are often frightened of bears. However, “the black bear is a very shy, non-aggressive animal that avoids humans in most cases,” cites North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. “If you see a bear, stay calm and keep a safe distance. If you encounter a bear at close range, back away slowly and make lots of noise. Once you are a safe distance from the bear, enjoy watching this amazing animal.”

According to wildlife experts with the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, there are multiple ways to co-exist with bears: 

– Never feed or approach. 

– Secure food, garbage, and recycling.

– Remove bird feeders when bears are active.

– Avoid leaving pet foods outside.

– Clean grill; store if possible.

– Let neighbors know about bear sightings. 

Campers should not store food in tents – and even consider that such supplies as toothpaste may attract a bear. Bear proof containers secure anything that has a scent. And, some area campsites have food storage containers for campers to use. 

While it is rare for black bears to initiate aggression, if they feel nervous they may clack their teeth together, or make a moaning, blowing, or huffing sound. They may also stomp the ground. A bear might stand up to get a better look at whatever is bothering them. If they are highly agitated and fearful, they may bluff charge, which means to run toward whatever is frightening them, but then stop before reaching the cause of the fear (dog or human, for example). Humans are advised to stay calm, make a lot of noise, and back away. Bear spray is available at some pawn and gun shops as well as outdoor equipment stores. The spray is effective to use if a bear approaches and an individual feels threatened.

Visitors to the Wildlife Commission’s Mountain State Fair exhibit can get tips on how to live responsibly around black bears. The Mountain State Fair, which runs from Sept. 6-15, is located in Fletcher, just west of Asheville. The exhibit will be in the Davis Center exhibition building on the grounds of Western North Carolina Agricultural Center, located at 1301 Fanning Bridge Road. Exhibit hours will be 3-10 p.m., Mon.-Thurs.; 9 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sun., except Sept. 15, when the exhibit will close at 9 p.m. is also a comprehensive source for more black-bear-related information.