As Southern Cities Sprawl, People Are Bumping Into More Bears

Jim Bounds/Raleigh News & Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

ASHEVILLE, N.C.—The population is booming in this mountain city—for both humans and bears.

Hundreds of black bears are building dens within Asheville’s city limits, roaming streets based on garbage-pickup schedules and scavenging in backyards for bird seed. Bears are particularly hungry this time of year, consuming as many as 20,000 calories a day in preparation for snuggling in their dens from late December to late March.

Fearing inter-species clashes, researchers with the Urban/Suburban Bear Study plan to coach 2,000 residents in two Asheville neighborhoods on such measures as securing garbage in bear-proof containers, cleaning grills after use and using bird feeders only in winter when bears are inactive.

The hope is residents will spread best practices and prevent the bears from wearing out their welcome in a city that has tolerated them so far. Researchers say it is better for both man and beast if bears nibble on acorns in the woods behind a home rather than lick yogurt containers in the recycling bin in the driveway.

“Bears are just doing what bears do; they want food,” said Chris DePerno, an North Carolina State University biologist and study leader. “Wildlife management is largely people management.”

Asheville has grown nearly 40% in the past 20 years, fueled by retirees and remote workers seeking an arts-and-outdoors culture in the western Blue Ridge Mountains. At the same time, as a result of a decadeslong conservation effort, bears now number more than 4,000 in the surrounding mountain region, compared with fewer than 1,000 in 1980. Bear hunting is allowed in many rural parts of the mountain region, with 1,264 bears harvested in 2017.

For centuries, humans have taken over territory inhabited by wildlife, whether coyotes out West or alligators in Florida. The difference here is that rather than attempt to remove or relocate the animals, people are seeking to coexist with them.

The stakes are high. Last year, in a community 10 miles east of Asheville, a woman walking her dog was badly injured by a mother bear scrounging for garbage. The bear was euthanized by wildlife officers.

Asheville is unique in the Southeast for the size of its bear population, and residents have shown great affection for the animals, celebrating them in books and on bumper stickers. The Urban/Suburban Bear Study, started by researchers with North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission set out to see if city bears were as healthy as their country counterparts.

From 2014 to 2018, researchers with the project fitted 245 bears with GPS-connected collars to track movement, survival and reproduction.

Researchers said they were surprised to find that Asheville was a great bear habitat. Male yearlings commonly weigh over 200 pounds, and female yearlings over 100 pounds, compared with rural yearling bears, which weigh from 45 to 85 pounds. Reproductive rates were robust, and life expectancy was high, as bears were less likely than rural bears to be killed by a hunter or hit by a vehicle.

The next step in the work was to make sure bears don’t wear out their welcome by damaging property or causing injury in search of food, Dr. DePerno said.

Asheville, population 92,000, is near two national parks, adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway and on a ridgeline, making it a natural highway for bears. The state’s rural eastern part has the largest percentage of bears, but the Asheville metro area represented 58% of calls about human-bear interaction in 2017, according to the wildlife commission. It is increasingly common for the commission to hear complaints about bear-pet encounters, researchers said.

“You’re going to see more people living in more historically rural settings,” Dr. DePerno said. “You’re going to have more human-wildlife interaction, whether it’s deer, bears, copperheads, what have you.”

Tom and Janet Winemiller, who are among dozens of newcomers in their Town Mountain neighborhood, were drawn from Ohio to Asheville three years ago by the city’s picturesque downtown and proximity to the Blue Ridge Parkway. They spend hours watching security-video footage of the bears that traipse through their yard, and Ms. Winemiller said she keeps her adult children up-to-date on the activities of family favorites Larry and Bob.

“We’d heard there were bears, but nobody told us it would be daily,” said Ms. Winemiller, who is leading her neighborhood committee as part of the bear project. “Nobody told us it’d be out in the front yard.”

The Winemillers shelved their six bird feeders once they realized sweet, high-fat and high-calorie bird seed is a bear magnet. They like to sit on the deck and watch the bears, but they take precautions like not letting their 5-year-old granddaughter play in the yard.

The winding road up to the Winemillers’ house is dotted with signs advertising new condos and housing developments. Neighbors share group texts about which bears they are seeing and where, or swap stories about unwanted bear encounters, like the neighbor who found a bear had broken into her kitchen and smashed the cookie jar.

Ms. Winemiller plans to ask contractors not to mix food and construction debris and to talk with new neighbors about taking out garbage and recycling on pickup day rather than the evening before. “I feel we owe it to nature to be stewards of these animals,” she said.

Two hours west in the wealthy retirement community of Highlands, N.C., the downtown was in danger of being overrun by bears a year or so ago, Mayor Pat Taylor said. They were drawn by garbage from restaurants and would also break into cars with food inside.

“They’d just wreak havoc with foraging for people food,” he said.

Mr. Taylor, after hearing a presentation on the Asheville study, said he worked with the town council to spend $180,000 on anchoring bear-proof trash cans to downtown streets and providing bear-proof containers in the business district. The town’s 1,000 residents have until Aug. 1 to buy bear-proof garbage cans, which cost about $300.

Within months, fewer bears were around. “I want to protect the bears,” he said. “The way we protect the bears is to cut down on interactions with humans.”

The post As Southern Cities Sprawl, People Are Bumping Into More Bears appeared first on Real Estate News & Insights | realtor.com®.