Folks moving to Asheville only need four things, jokes N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologist Justin McVey: a Subaru, a dog, an appreciation for craft beer and a bear-resistant trash can.
For many Asheville residents, seeing a bear at their trash can is a bucket-list item, the pinnacle of mountain living. But as exciting as a bear sighting can be, interactions with the furry, four-legged natives can quickly spell problems for bears and humans alike.
In November, Asheville City Council authorized the city’s sanitation division to provide bear-resistant trash cans for a $10 monthly fee on a first-come, first-served basis. An initial order of 340 cans (which the city calls “carts”) totaling $81,052.50, was placed shortly thereafter; the carts arrived and went out to 310 residents in early February.
So far, the city has only heard about one instance of a bear getting into a bear-resistant cart, says Jes Foster, Asheville’s solid waste manager. But that doesn’t mean the bears are going away — if anything, their appetite may be growing.
Beary big year
2020 was a crazy year for everyone — bears included, says McVey. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission received 421 nuisance calls about bears from Buncombe County residents in 2020, McVey says. That was a jump from the year before, which saw 289 calls, he notes.
In past years, calls to both McVey and the NCWRC’s Human Wildlife Interaction helpline generally followed similar themes: Residents would report bears in their yards, getting into trash cans or eating from bird feeders. While many of the incoming calls still follow the same pattern, McVey says, some bear activity is different from what was observed in years prior.
“More bears are breaking into houses and doing that really, really bad behavior that we’re concerned about, and I don’t have a reason for it,” he explains. “Perhaps the call volume is just because more people were at home and seeing bears, but I can’t explain why we’ve had more bears breaking into houses.”
Asheville’s Animal Service Division does not delineate incoming wildlife calls by species, said city spokesperson Ashley Traynum-Carson. If there was an increase in bear-related calls in 2020, department staff members speculate it may have been due to an increase in grocery deliveries and food scraps as residents spent more time cooking meals at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s still too early for McVey and his team to tell if Asheville’s bear-resistant trash can program has had any impact on the dining habits of local bears. But data from other cities that have pushed for bear-resistant trash containers show a dramatic drop in human-bear interactions, he says.
One such city is Durango, Colo. From 2011-16, Colorado Parks and Wildlife distributed 1,110 bear-resistant trash cans to residents in two sections of town, then compared the number of human-bear interactions in the neighborhoods with the containers versus two nearby control areas.
After the bear-resistant containers were deployed, scientists found trash-related conflicts were 60% lower in neighborhoods with the cans. But a key piece of the puzzle is enforcement, says Bryan Peterson, the executive director of the nonprofit Bear Smart Durango. If the city doesn’t actively ensure the bear-proof containers are properly and consistently used, their presence does little to mitigate bear interactions.
Early signs of success
Emily Keebler of Haw Creek is one of the 310 people who received a bear-resistant trash cart from the city. Her neighborhood is home to a large male bear the residents have affectionately named “Bubba,” and Bubba has a taste for garbage.
Keebler’s no stranger to creative solutions to keep bears like Bubba out of her trash. First, she tried putting ammonia in her trash cans to discourage Bubba, a makeshift move that had worked to deter bears in the Kenilworth neighborhood where she previously lived. In Haw Creek, it made no difference, she says.
She then tried bungee cords, but after Bubba figured out he could pry the back of the lid up enough to grab the top trash bags, Keebler switched to ratchet straps. Those were successful at keeping the bears away, she says, but they made it difficult for her to throw garbage into the bin.
When she heard that the city was offering bear-resistant trash cans, she jumped on board. Her new canister arrived in early February, and so far, she hasn’t had any trouble with hungry four-legged friends.
“[The bear-resistant trash can] has a latch on the inside of it and you have to squeeze the two sides to open it up,” she says. “And it’s got a really heavy lid, because I think that’s the problem with the bungee cords and ratchet straps, that sometimes the bears can pull the back of the lid up. I think it’s going to work better.”
The city is still working out some of the bear-resistant trash can kinks, Foster says. It’s important to avoid overloading the carts to prevent bags from catching in the latch when the lids are closed. In some cases, sanitation drivers have had to manually unlatch the containers, she notes, an issue her team is addressing with the cart vendor.
Buncombe County residents with Waste Pro contracts also have access to bear-resistant trash cans. According to Chip Gingles, Waste Pro’s divisional vice president, approximately 1,500 bear cans have been distributed to Buncombe County customers. There is a short waitlist, he noted in an email, but additional carts are back in stock and should be delivered within the next few weeks.
Bear-resistant trash cans are a great step, says McVey, but long-term changes will require broad local buy-in.
“I think it’s going to be one of those things where, if everyone is on board, there will definitely be a drop in human-bear wildlife interactions,” he says. “But it has to be a communitywide effort.”