Justin McVey of Horse Shoe looks at the world differently than do most people. A bird feeder and a trash can are a potential buffet for urban black bears scavenging residential properties in search of food. A dead deer on the side of the road might be roadkill — or an indication that disease is working its way through the population. His unique perspective comes with the territory as Western North Carolina’s wildlife management biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
McVey joined the NCWRC full time in 2012 after years of working with domestic, captive and wild animals. His first job out of college was at a kangaroo breeding facility, where he learned how to catch joeys (and how to get a kangaroo to take extra vitamins by feeding it a peanut butter and banana sandwich). After earning a Master of Science degree with a thesis on the eating habits of red wolves and coyotes, he became the NCWRC’s District 9 wildlife biologist and now manages the elk and black bear population across 12 WNC counties.
McVey, 43, spoke with Xpress about how to make houses and porches unpalatable as potential dens, why humans should never feed bears and what it feels like to approach a mama bear and her cubs inside a den.
What do you think is the most pressing issue for WNC wildlife right now?
Urban bears: bears that are in settings where there’s more houses. Our bear population is still increasing, and of course our human population is increasing. The most pressing thing is trying to educate folks and get people to learn how to live responsibility with bears.
All that revolves around not feeding bears or letting them be fed — things like having bearproof trash cans, not having bird feeders when bears are active and not feeding bears. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people that feed bears. We have folks who are buying hundreds of pounds of nuts, putting out bird seed just for bears, throwing out other things for bears and hand-feeding bears. Really crazy stuff!
There are several Asheville neighborhoods that have residents feeding bears. This is very dangerous not only to humans, but also the bear. The bears are starting to become defensive of the area that they’re getting fed in. They’re bluff-charging people and doing some alarming behaviors. If people really cared about bears and wildlife, they would keep them wild.
Is summertime the most active time of year for black bears in WNC?
I deal a lot with the bears generally from Memorial Day until late summer, late July or August. But in early winter, when bears start to den, I get calls about them getting up underneath houses or porches. In the past couple of years, I’ve been a little busier during winter, talking bears into moving on from under houses.
How do you talk a bear into moving on?
Oh, I’ve got different tricks. Sometimes it’s easy. Say it’s a porch: You can have the homeowner put a radio on and run a water hose on top of the deck so it drips down. It makes the bear uncomfortable and realize this isn’t the greatest place to have a den. Other times I have to use my pepper spray or some pyrotechnics. Sometimes it’s just yelling at the bear, and I can get them to move on — and advise the homeowners how to seal up the area and prevent that from happening again.
In addition to being the bear biologist for District 9, you’re the state’s elk biologist. What does that entail?
During the winter months, it is a lot of elk work. That’s when I’m trying to put collars on elk. We’ve got a big project looking at the population estimate of elk in North Carolina, with a lot of field work from January to March.
What are some of the myths or misunderstandings about the wildlife here that you frequently correct?
Elk are what they are: 800-pound, long-legged herbivores that eat a lot of vegetables. I don’t know if there’s many myths around those.
But with bears, you see opposite ends of the spectrum. You have folks who think bears are cute and cuddly and need our help — “Oh, this one looks like it’s not heavy enough! It needs to gain some weight!” — so they’re feeding the bear. And then there’s the opposite end of the spectrum, where people are just scared to death of bears.
Part of my job is trying to educate folks on what a bear really is. Yes, it’s a wild animal, but it’s not something you need to be afraid of. You need to respect that it’s a wild animal and behave accordingly.
Do you have any updates on the Urban/Suburban Black Bear Study in the Asheville area that the NCWRC and N.C. State University are collaborating on?
We’re in the second phase of the study, which is probably going to end up going until 2024. This second phase is looking at what these urban bears are eating and their interactions with people. Our N.C. State grad student Jen Strules has about 20 bears with collars on them, so she’s monitoring those.
Researchers are going to take hair samples to figure out where their diet came from, whether it’s natural or anthropogenic food sources like human trash. Jen’s getting a lot of bears denning beneath houses and decks. The hot spots are Haw Creek, Town Mountain Road and Beaverdam Road. Those specific areas of Asheville have a ton of bears, so that’s where she’s focusing her efforts.
What is the story behind that photograph of you holding four bear cubs?
That was during the first phase of the collaborative bear project with N.C. State. During the winter, we will work up the female bears. We crawl into the bear den, anesthetize mom, change out her collar and put a new battery on it. We weigh each cub and take multiple measurements, including zygomatic arch, ear and hair length, front and hind paw length and width, chest girth, overall length and tooth eruption. With the mom, we’ll take blood again and sample for diseases and mark wherever the den is. Then we put the cubs back with mama and wake her up.
The mama bear is heavily anesthetized when you do this, right?
That’s right. Black bears don’t truly hibernate. They go into this thing called torpor. So when you crawl into a bear den, the bear raises her head and looks at you. You look down and you try to be still. She’s really, really sleepy and doesn’t want to move. Once she puts her head down, you can slowly creep and crawl a little bit more until you get close enough to hit her with the dart gun and anesthetize her. You’re on your belly looking at a full-grown bear! It’s something else.
Do you feel fear during those times? Or have you been working with wildlife for so long that you don’t feel fear anymore?
There’s always a caution, but it’s not fear. I also don’t go in there like a cowboy, guns a-blazin’, like I can handle everything. I always respect the wildlife. I always know that they could hurt me.