For decades the consensus among wildlife biologists was that black bears and people can’t coexist. North Carolina’s largest mountain city is proving them wrong.
To hear locals in Asheville tell it, and to read numbers being amassed by a five-year study, bears are as common as buskers on Haywood Street, and usually less annoying.
As riverside factories became art studios and Asheville earned a name for craft beer, bears began moving in or passing through the city. They were part of a bear population boom since the state created sanctuaries to boost their low numbers four decades ago.
An estimated 20,000 bears now roam more than half of North Carolina’s land area.
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A study that is unique in the Southeast will help biologists understand how bears live, move about and disperse from Asheville. The study, which involves trapping and tracking of radio-collared animals, is at its midway point.
Researchers have already learned this: Bears can thrive in a city of 90,000 people.
Official records log growing numbers of people-bear “interactions” in mountain counties, such as complaints of bears raiding trash cans.
But personal contacts during the study revealed another side: City residents are warily tolerant of the powerful omnivores that can reach 500 pounds, sport inch-long claws and sprint at 35 mph.
Caroline York was afraid of bears before moving from Texas with her husband, Matthew, three years ago. Within days, her heart pounded as a bear and cubs walked across her driveway in heavily wooded Webb Cove.
Now, after a learning curve that involved keeping a safe distance and taking special care around mothers with cubs, the family cherishes their bears.
“You have to have a little fear,” York said, “but it’s really all about respect.”
Bears, in turn, “seem to be very tolerant of people,” said biologist Mike Carraway of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, which partnered with N.C. State University on the study. “We generally think of that as a bad thing, but it could be the opposite. It could be we’re habituated in both ways.”
That’s important to know because more of us are likely to be living among bears, as many already do with white-tailed deer and coyotes. Bear range is creeping from the state’s western and eastern ends toward the populous center. Breeding bears already live within two counties of Mecklenburg.
Black bears aren’t considered predators and normally shy away from humans, but neither are they cuddly pets frolicking in the rhododendron. Bears attacked and killed a 6-year-old girl in Tennessee in 2006 and a woman in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2000.
Asheville tourists aren’t likely to see a bear this spring, yet it’s possible. The best bear habitat is in the woodsy northeastern and southwestern parts of the city, but the 76 bears collared since 2014 have wandered throughout the city.
“They’re everywhere,” said Nick Gould, the N.C. State doctoral student who is the project lead for the $600,000 bear study.
The study findings will help biologists predict where bears will establish new territories in the state. Experts hope people elsewhere will follow Asheville’s cues: Take caution among bears, especially mamas with cubs, and keep out of reach the trash cans and bird feeders that lure bears toward homes.
Hunting, which killed 3,000 bears last year, is the state’s main tool to keep their numbers in check.
“There will eventually be a tolerance level where we have to take action,” such as by increased hunting, said Brad Howard, the wildlife commission’s private lands coordinator. “Our goal across the state is a stable bear population.”
A bear sanctuary
A key question the bear study hopes to answer is whether bears are being attracted to Asheville, and stay there, or produce cubs that wander away from sanctuary in the city.
In either case, bears find a good living there. Hunting is off limits in town, and spreading development around its perimeter has effectively created more safe habitat.
“For all practical purposes, within the city limits of Asheville has become a bear sanctuary,” Carraway said.
Biologists believe that bears travel through the city to reach dense forest on its outskirts, including Asheville’s 22,000-acre watershed to the northeast and national forest to the southwest. The Blue Ridge Parkway runs between those areas.
Bears follow natural corridors, such as the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers, but they’ve also become adept at navigating busy interstates. Two bears have spent winters denned in a small thicket between Interstate 240 and two ramps to the highway.
While most bear studies focus on public lands such as national forests, the Asheville research is taking place entirely on private property.
“We live with bears on a daily basis,” said Carol Boone, who lives on Town Mountain 4 miles from downtown and allowed researchers to install a trap at her home. “It’s something you think about when you go outside your home, or even open the garage doors.”
Boone has a collection of memories, mostly warm, from her decade on the mountain:
The bear that ate three bags of cat food and drank a bottle of beer from a refrigerator in the caretaker’s cottage. Two bears on their backs, chugging nectar from her hummingbird feeders (she’s taken them down). A bear pushing a roll-out garbage container out of her garage like a shopping cart. Bears splashing in her goldfish ponds and playfully swinging each other in a hammock.
New to the house, she discovered that bears would climb the steps to her deck. One decided to come through her screened doors as she rushed to close them, then pawed at her open kitchen windows. “Nobody died,” she said quietly.
Boone, who lives part of the year in Montana, said she’s not afraid of black bears because they’re not grizzlies. She finds them inquisitive and endlessly inventive in finding food. Birthday cake and doughnuts lured a bear into a researcher’s trap at her house two years ago.
“People have gotten used to bears in their environment, and the bears have gotten used to us,” she said. “As long as you pay them their due, you can get along.”
Her neighbors have similar stories, but Boone knows of no mishaps. “It says something about the people, and the bears too,” she said.
Bear cubs and dogs
Early settlers routinely killed bears, as they did wolves and mountain lions, to protect their families, crops and livestock. By the early 1900s, bears were found only in the state’s remotest mountains and coastal swamps.
Their numbers began rebounding in the 1970s, when the state created sanctuaries, mostly on national forests, where bears could not be hunted and their young could disperse.
As the population boomed, so did the “interactions” with people, as the wildlife agency terms bear complaints and sightings. The Wildlife Resources Commission logged 465 complaints about bears in 12 western counties, including Buncombe, in 2013. The number plunged to 272 in 2014, when a heavy mast crop limited bears’ scavenging for food.
More than half of North Carolina’s bears live in the coastal plain, where wildlife refuges and cropland produce males weighing more than 800 pounds. But those counties have fewer people and generate far fewer complaints.
Bear encounters that go awry in and around Asheville often involve the volatile mix of mother bears, cubs, excited dogs and owners who try to save their dogs, biologists say.
A state survey in 2005 hinted that a growing familiarity with bears in the Asheville area would challenge the old consensus that bears can’t live among people. People got smarter about bears, it found, and alarm turned to caution.
When native Tom Noblett took part in a bear study at Mount Pisgah, southwest of the city, in the 1980s, he said, “we weren’t seeing any bears around Asheville at the time.”
Last year, when bear researchers placed a trap on his property east of Asheville, “we caught six bears basically in my front yard.”
Noblett lives in a log cabin beside a rushing stream on 50 acres below Rice Knob, just below the Blue Ridge Parkway northeast of Asheville. Bears are as much part of his life as a dark night sky.
“Some people are scared to death of bears,” he said. “Others seem to enjoy having them around, and that seems to be the majority opinion.”
The goodwill can go too far – one of Noblett’s neighbors fed a loaf of bread a day to bears, a foolhardy practice that makes the animals quickly associate people with food.
“The big day for bears is Wednesday,” he said. “Trash day.”
The N.C. Urban/Suburban Bear Study
The study team has captured 88 bears since 2014, and collared 76. Residents say they often see uncollared bears, suggesting their overall numbers are significantly higher.
Researchers are now tracking about 20 bears, the rest falling victim to hunting, illegal shootings, vehicle collisions or malfunctioning or ejected radio collars.
Initial data indicates that most of Asheville’s bears stay close to home, said project lead Nick Gould. The exceptions are mostly males, including one yearling that trekked 174 miles from Asheville to the Tennessee border and back.
Tracking bears is hard, unpredictable work. An excursion last week to the den of a collared bear showed why.
Bear N059’s den was a shallow pit at the base of a downed tree just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. The 200-pound bear had used the same den a year earlier, squeezed into a space the size of a subcompact car trunk with both her new cub and a yearling.
This year she had no cub to defend. And while denning bears in the Smokies slow down their metabolic and heart rates, they remain alert to what’s happening around them.
When the pink-tipped tranquilizer dart hit her shoulder, the bear bolted from the den and was gone. Bruce Henderson