News

After injuries and encounters, NC’s Bear City debates: Do we have too many bears?

Black bear sightings spring up in Asheville

Black bears spotted in Asheville appear close to residential areas.
Up Next
Black bears spotted in Asheville appear close to residential areas.

Relaxed attitudes about the many black bears roaming Asheville, North Carolina’s bear city, have been pushed to new limits in 2018.

An estimated 100 to 200 bears live year-round among its 90,000 people, state biologists say. Still more were drawn to town this summer by heavy rains that hurt acorn and berry crops in the hills. It seemed like bears were everywhere: chilling in a backyard hammock; rifling through unlocked cars; swiping muffin mix from kitchens.

Even more unusually, two people in the area were hurt in bear encounters. Some residents say it’s time to do something about their big, hairy neighbors.

Allison Frank, 66, says she stopped walking through her north Asheville neighborhood last summer after three bear encounters. This year, the 20-year resident says, has been “exponentially worse.”

Frank’s neighbor told her a large bear charged him as he rolled out his garbage container. Her own container, which Frank says she can’t put away because she lives in an apartment, has been raided nine times in the past six weeks. When she ventured out for a midday walk two weeks ago, she says, a bear came off a neighbor’s front porch and followed her at a fast walk around the block.

“You feel really naked and vulnerable when there is a bear in close proximity,” Frank said. She predicts that “somebody is going to get hurt bad and the city is going to get sued.”

Frank says she complained to Asheville City Council but got responses she found condescending. The former real estate agent blames the city for letting development destroy bears’ natural habitat while creating “this ridiculous Disney World-kind of place” that caters to tourists and newcomers who find bears charming.

Her letter to an alternative weekly, Mountain Xpress, kicked off a lively debate over bears.

Some writers agreed with Frank, predicting a tragedy or advocating removal, sterilization or expanded hunting to reduce bear numbers.

But most commenters sided with the bears, arguing that humans are the real problem. State biologists say encounters are on the rise as more people move into bear country.

“In my many bear encounters they have been rather nonchalant,” one writer responded. “I only WISH the humans of my daily life were so calm and non-confrontational.”

Added another: “I say round up all the recent transplants and relocate THEM.”

There is good reason for bears to also call Asheville home, biologists say. A five-year study of urban bears in Asheville has tagged 150 bears in or near the city.

After decades of logging and the loss of a key food source, chestnut trees killed by blight, North Carolina’s bears were at a low point by the 1950s, the state Wildlife Resources Commission says. In 1971, the state began to create sanctuaries that let them breed in safety. Bear numbers rebounded from about 2,000 in 1980 to as many as 20,000 now.

Surrounded by bear country, but with no hunting allowed within the city limits, Asheville became a refuge that also offered a buffet of garbage cans, bird feeders and dog food bowls. Some residents compound the problem by purposely feeding bears.

The shy, curious omnivores, which weigh 150 to 300 pounds or more as adults, can easily outrun humans but prefer to avoid them. Females will defend their cubs, and bears that associate people with food may lose their natural fear.

Early this month, a 78-year-old Haywood County man said he punched a mama bear in the nose after she charged him in his driveway. “I fought that bear like I would fight a man,” Sonny Pumphrey, who was treated for scratches and a puncture wound, told the Asheville Citizen-Times.

In September, state biologists reluctantly killed a bear after it attacked an elderly woman, biting and scratching her, as she walked near her home in Swannanoa. The bear, which had three cubs, may have been responding to a barking dog.

This year’s lack of natural foods, which pushed bears to wander more widely than usual, and bear encounters are aberrations — but ones that will likely be repeated at some point, said biologist Mike Carraway, the wildlife commission’s mountain region supervisor.

“It is a problem we’re struggling with and we don’t know what the solution is,” he said. The commission knows from past experience that a key to avoiding conflict is to keep bears out of garbage bins, but that’s not as easy to do as it seems.

The wildlife commission and N.C. State University will launch a five-year study this winter to learn more about where Asheville’s bears get their food and how to reduce conflicts with them. Some neighborhoods will be bear-proofed, such as with latching garbage containers, and compared to areas where no such steps are taken.

But the commission’s efforts to sell Asheville on bear-resistant garbage containers have been difficult, Carraway said. New containers would not only be expensive but less likely to work with garbage trucks that use mechanical arms to upend containers.

The commission has been testing bear-resistant prototypes with the captive bear at the city’s Western North Carolina Nature Center, Carraway said. The tests include retrofitted containers that would work with Asheville’s automated collection vehicles, city solid waste manager Jes Foster added.

“Currently, the greatest barrier for bear carts is cost,” Foster said by email. “The barrier with retrofits is finding something that will function correctly with the automated vehicles and still be bear-resistant.”

Beyond those efforts, Carraway said, “if you’re talking about reducing the bear population in the immediate Asheville area you’re either talking about killing bears or relocating bears.”

Hunting isn’t allowed inside the city limits, and Carraway said expanded hunting outside Asheville could simply drive bears on the city’s perimeter to the safety of town. The commission avoids relocating bears, he added, because they often compound problems elsewhere and the animals use their homing instinct to return.

Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, who like Allison Frank lives in north Asheville, acknowledged that city officials have heard a lot about bears this year. Even schools in the heart of the city have been locked down because of prowling bears, she said.

The city advises residents to take steps to cut down on bear problems, Wisler said, such as not putting out bird feeders that draw bears and not putting out garbage until the morning it’s due to be picked up. Asheville is also evaluating bear-proof garbage containers that it could offer residents, for a fee, in problem areas.

Beyond that, she said, there seems to be no simple answer.

“We understand that it certainly isn’t any fun for people to interact with bears,” Wisler said. “People say that we need to ‘do something,’ and I’m not real sure what those solutions would be other than that what we’re doing right now. We’re just trying to live with the bears in the best way we can.”

Living with bears

BearWise.org recommends these basics:

  • Never feed or approach bears.

  • Keep food, garbage and recycling waste out of bears’ reach.

  • Remove bird feeders when bears are active.

  • Never leave pet food outdoors.

  • Clean grills after use and store them securely.

  • Alert neighbors to bear activity.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051; @bhender
  Comments