Time for a ‘bear summit’?

Bill Branyon

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.

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10 thoughts on “Time for a ‘bear summit’?

  1. Lulz

    I walk a lot and have had many encounters with them. Have seen as many as 3 large males gathered in one yard. Have had one walk around the perimeter of my house ending up 10 feet away from me while sitting on my front porch. Ran into one last week on the street I was walking on. Had to turn around. Two weeks ago, a sow and two large cubs decided to take a break in my back yard. The sow stayed on the ground while the cubs took a siesta up high in trees. None of these bears were collared. Their population is woefully underestimated.

    • james

      And your point is?
      Maybe you’re just one of those that likes to tell their close-encounter stories.

  2. james

    “…it seems inevitable that sooner or later an Ashevillean will be significantly harmed by a bear…And that, in turn, might lead City Council or the Wildlife Commission to finally take action”

    I have heard this phrase fairly often recently. What ‘action’? I would like to hear what types of action people are proposing that government entities take.

    • _Will_

      I’m curious too. Rounding up a bunch of bears and sticking them in a correction facility, as the author recommends, is humorous perhaps, but an entirely unhelpful suggestion. The article seems to assume the City Council and the Wildlife Commission isn’t doing anything about the problem, but the author didn’t seem to reach out to those entities to ask if they are doing anything , and if so, what. The Wildlife Commission at least has information on their website that mentions what they do and do not do regarding bear problems: http://www.ncwildlife.org/bear.

    • Shultz!

      Reduce the population to mid-1990’s levels via a sterilization program. Nothing City Gvt can handle, but probably something that could be brought forward for State government.

      • james

        So you propose that the state wildlife agency catch bears, sterilize them, and release them back into the wild to thin the population?
        Or maybe you meant to reduce the human population to mid-1990s levels. That seems just as possible.
        The bears are here, and have been. The humans are the new issue. It’s the humans that need to learn how to live in this environment.

    • Bozo

      I’d like to know what “action,” too. Sounds like a couched threat to me, and mortal combat with the predictive rational of protection. How disappointing, shortsighted, and downright stupid. Was there no foresight when all the “people” were lured here? Sad that greed overrides killing…bears, a city, etc. Stuff your pockets, do “what you have to do,” and shut up.

  3. _Will_

    The Wildlife Commission has a hotline you can call if you are having problems with wild animals, or have questions: 1-866-318-2401. They’re pretty helpful. They recommend people read up about avoiding problems with bears at http://www.bearwise.org. I think they also do educational workshops too, when there’s a demand for it. Maybe you just haven’t heard of any in the area recently. May be worth a call.

  4. SpareChange

    Options:
    1. Sterilization – NJ has studied this option extensively and has concluded that it is both impractical and ineffective.
    https://www.state.nj.us/dep/dsr/bear/
    2. Hunting and euthanizing – likely the most effective in decreasing overall population in the region and may need to be seriously considered, but politically very touchy. Hunting will not be permitted in more populated areas, which is where the problem exists, and the prospect of wildlife authorities driving around Montford tranquilizing mother and baby bears for euthanizing will prompt most residents to pick up the pitchforks and torches.
    3. Rounding up and placing in a preserve – falls from the weight of its own ignorance about bears. Bears require expansive territories, or else they fight and kill one another. You cannot group them together and teach them to get along. These are not tranquil herd animals. One male may defend upwards from 10 to 50 square miles of territory. Females will not share territory.
    4. Deal with it – coexist, educating people about the dangers, and know that like most things in life, there will be casualties among both humans and bears. It’s similar to the implicit bargain we strike every time we choose to drive, when we go into the ocean, when we climb a mountain, etc.

  5. Perplexioned

    Well and bravely said Spare Change. And true … until someone important gets badly mauled or killed. Then the clamoring for action will be significant enough for something to happen. What? I think sterilization is most humane. But yes, bear defenders (me!) will probably raise a giant ruckus and yeah, bears were here first. No one’s gonna force people to leave the area, though that’s the most ecologically just solution. No one is going to declare a moratorium on development and hunting, though development and bears fleeing hunting are the major reasons they are in the city I believe, along with plentiful food in town.
    I find Wildlife Commission advice very sparse and impractical. Careful trash management will help on the borders of the city, but city bears will probably start breaking into houses to replace the lost, trash-food source, as they do around Lake Tahoe. If a bear “fake” charges me, I’m going to run. WC advises standing your ground. So??? We definitely need some outside these boxes thinking because our area bears, Penelope and her teenagers Hewie and Dewie, are getting more brazen by the day, having pretty much taken over the yard across the street and swaggering through the neighborhood like Al Capone daring anyone to challenge them as they search the area for food scraps. Actually they do a good job of keeping to themselves and even the teenagers seem very well behaved. One dark night however someone’s not going to see them or accidently get between Penelope and the boys. Or maybe not. I hope.

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