BY BILL BRANYON
In the last five or 10 years, large alpha predators, easily able to kill humans, have become an increasingly common sight in many Asheville neighborhoods. According to Planetdeadly.com, they’re faster than the fastest person, can smell more effectively than dogs and climb trees with alacrity. They have five inch-and-a-quarter claws per paw that, with one swipe, can cause “broken bones and deep lacerations.” Their primary killing style is to hug a human with the strength of three men “and then bite on the head or neck and sever the spinal cord.”
The good news is that they rarely attack people. The bad news is that if frightened, defending their offspring or hungry, they may attack, kill and even eat humans.
Of course I’m talking about black bears, Ursus americanus. Although these omnivores have killed only 23 people in North America in the last 18 years, few areas have the bear-to-human concentration that Asheville now has. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has tagged more than 150 bears in or near the city limits, and there may be many more. Meanwhile, according to a post by Jake Richardson on Planetsave.com, humans killed about 100,000 black bears between 1998 and 2012 in legal annual hunts in the East Coast states alone.
Home invasion flirtations
I recently posted on Facebook that our bears are a bad accident waiting to happen. Several responders said they’d been charged by bears or had bumped into them somewhere. A few had had their houses broken into. One person said a friend was knocked off their bike in a collision with a bear and had to be hospitalized. Several people claimed close encounters with mother bears and their cubs. Almost everyone seems to have an exciting bear story.
Around Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada, the black bear muddle is similar to what Asheville is increasingly facing. Yet according to a recent story in The Sacramento Bee titled “Tahoe Bears Are Breaking Into Homes With People Inside,” folks there have more experience coping with them.
Lake Tahoe is virtually surrounded by public lands, and an estimated 300-500 black bears live in the area. Towns around the lake have passed laws, including $1,000 fines for not buying bearproof trash cans or for putting out trash at any time other than the designated pickup day.
These efforts have been somewhat successful, but now that the Tahoe bears have been deprived of trash-can food, they’re beginning to break into houses, the article reports. One expert estimates there are five bear house break-ins every night. “The ease with which they can get in shows that it’s a learned pattern, and it’s taught generationally,” said a Nevada Department of Wildlife official. To prevent bear break-ins, keep doors double-locked, windows heavily shuttered, don’t keep food in unoccupied houses and even install comprehensive electric fencing, the article suggests.
Tahoe’s nonprofit Bear League boasts about 1,800 members and 278 trained volunteers who respond to bear calls. They’re vehemently opposed to shooting, euthanizing or deporting the animals. And though the league claims innocence, some bear lovers have smeared blood-red paint or trashed the homes of people who’d reported bears or had them deported or killed.
More home invasions and greater community polarization are a probable future for Asheville. A West Asheville man recently killed a bear he felt was menacing him and his daughter and wasn’t convicted of hunting without a license. He said he’d received several threats, however. The author of a letter to the editor in Mountain Xpress said she “went to a City Council meeting and begged them to intervene” after three face-to-face encounters. “Their condescending attitude toward me was insulting,” she wrote. Responses to her letter were dripping in sarcasm, including suggestions that she move, that she wanted government tyranny and that bears were here first.
Bear City USA?
Asheville’s bear invasion may be nature’s revenge for the extensive and total destruction of animal habitat due to our insatiable and greedy development. Others claim that bears have simply learned to like human food and urban living due to handouts and easy pickings. I recently tried to tell a bear on my porch that I’d fought rampant development my entire life. He stared at me for a few seconds, then mercilessly attacked my bird feeder. The feeder is now history, but if The Sacramento Bee story is to be believed, the bear might break into my house next time.
On the other hand, these lumbering oafs are always an amazing and surreal sight, and a mother bear playing with her cubs is a fabulous delight — unless the viewer is in between mother and cubs. And experts say that city bears deported into the wild typically return to their original neighborhoods or die trying. So what can be done?
I have a fantasy of establishing a bear sanctuary near Asheville. The immense and heavily fenced Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women would be perfect. Move the poor prisoners to better digs, transport city bears there and treat them well. Pay for it with retroactive and future taxes on developers. Tourists might spend big bucks to see it.
Otherwise, it seems inevitable that sooner or later an Ashevillean will be significantly harmed by a bear — or a bear activist. And that, in turn, might lead City Council or the Wildlife Commission to finally take action. In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy recently declared a moratorium on the annual bear hunts on state-owned lands pending further study. The killing of a Rutgers student and the mauling of a Boy Scout troop leader in recent years have made black bears a hot-button issue there.
Meanwhile, Asheville can expect to see more human/bear collisions. Bears are just too powerful to continue to tolerate people interfering with their business.
In mid-September, a Swannanoa woman was attacked, bitten and scratched by a mother bear when the woman tried to scare three cubs away from her neighbor’s trash. She received hospital treatment for “serious” but “nonlife-threatening” injuries. However, the sow was killed by authorities. Brad Stanback, a Buncombe County wildlife commissioner, said careless trash management made such an encounter “just a matter of time.” See avl.mx/5dt for the full story.
At the very least, City Council or the Wildlife Commission could stage a “bear summit” to document the number and character of close calls. Then again, we might just conclude that the loss of a few citizens, the gain of a reputation as a bear-terrorized city and the end of serenity while walking or dining are a small price to pay for living with these magnificent creatures.
Bill Branyon is a freelance bear hugger and mugger whose latest book, Advanced Romance: How Evolution, Revolution and Technology Have Changed the Laws of Love, can be found at BranyonsUltimateFreehinking.com.