Making peace with bears

Natalia Kalianna

BY NATALIA KALIANNA

I’m concerned about the escalating clash between humans and bears in the Asheville area. I’m a member of Nextdoor Beaverdam, and I’m seeing a notable rise in fear-based bear posts. I can only go by my 18-plus years of experience living here. I’m seeing a lot of griping and complaining as well as near panic-driven safety concerns. What I’m not seeing much of is an assumption of responsibility for the Asheville area’s rapid development and population growth, which are pushing the bears into our backyards.

We need to think long and hard about how our own behavior affects bears.

Is it really that much to ask not to put food in our trash and to wash out recyclable items before putting them in the bin? Not to let dogs run loose or leave them in unsecured yards? Not to feed birds when bears are out of hibernation? Not to leave food outside and to take care while barbecuing? If our answer to these questions is yes, then we need to ask ourselves why so many of us chose to relocate here?

I came here to be part of these beautiful mountains. I live on 4plus acres in Beaverdam, and I’ve cultivated a variety of food sources for all wildlife. I treasure my National Geographic moments: a mother bear nursing her cubs, young bears playing, a dominant male passing through. What a privilege it is to live so close to nature!

And sometimes, bears and other wildlife can come in handy. There’s nothing quite so special as mowing over a yellow jacket nest. Talk about scary! Thanks to bears, though, I no longer have any nests. Ouch … yum! Bears and deer also save me a lot of hard labor by snacking on waterlilies in my pond. Mmmm … delicious!

I’ve never had a bad experience with bears here. Annoying, yes, but never bad. I sympathize with people’s need for safety. What I question is a panic-driven fear and overriding need for control that can lead to destruction. The very foundation of coexistence is our willingness to accept the reality that we can never fully control nature.

A gentler approach

I don’t subscribe to all the expert bear safety guidelines. When I first moved here, I tested out raising my arms overhead and feigning dominance: The bear didn’t like it and moved toward me. I realized my aggressive posturing was taken as a provocation or challenge. What works for me is going about my business and letting the bears go about theirs. All my neighbors who have no problems with bears do likewise.

If I find myself in a rare close encounter, I remain calm, breathe, relax and lower my shoulders, turn sideways and slowly walk away, slightly lifting the arm facing the bear, palm open and facing downward to communicate my clear self-boundary. If a dog is present, I would either pick it up and carry it under my arm away from the bear or grab it by the scruff of the neck and put it into a heel position by my knee, away from the bear. Obedience training is a good thing!

Meanwhile, it’s important to remember that the bears are dancing as fast as they can to adapt to us. They’re being darned tolerant, really, considering that while we’re blowing our horns and wielding our pepper spray, they, like all wildlife, are simply passing through in search of food, water or a safe place to sleep. But bears draw the line when dogs chase or attack them outright: To a mother bear, all dogs are threatening. The bottom line is that bears and most other wildlife simply want to live in peace.

There are two kinds of fear — the healthy, commonsensical kind and the scared-to-death/want-you-dead kind. Both bears and people need to have the former; the latter begs for trouble on both sides.

Bears are not the enemy! We’re the ones who have to decide if we’re going to be the enemy. Coexistence is possible: We can do it, but it’s a practice. And we must first decide and then follow through.

If we reject coexistence, there’s no hope for bears in these mountains, which will gradually become like any other sprawling suburb. Other wildlife will be next on our hit list, and the region’s biodiversity will further dwindle. Initially it will be the bears’ loss, followed by any other wildlife that dare to scare or inconvenience us. In the end, however, it will be our loss.

I realize that we all have different beliefs and feelings about nature and wildlife, and varying reasons for living in these beautiful mountains. I cannot ask you to share my beliefs and feelings — I can only ask you to examine your own. And vote! Elections have consequences: The red wolf is near extinction!

I want to share a brief anecdote. Mike Fortune, a local organic farmer, prunes my fruit trees each winter. He has farmland with vegetable fields and fruit orchards. He’s a born-and-raised Ashevillean whose family has been here for generations. Much of his living depends on selling his produce. A few years ago, I asked him what he does to keep the bears out of his fruit trees? He said, “Plant more fruit trees!”

The Asheville area’s natural beauty is a gift we all share. Wildlife is as much a part of these mountains as we now are, and we don’t have the right to destroy the very natural beauty we live in.

The words of the great American Indian orator Chief Seattle still continue to echo on deaf ears: “All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Humankind did not weave the web of life: We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together.”

Will we finally listen?

Natalia Kalianna is a writer and board-certified polarity practitioner. Born in Slovakia, she has lived in Beaverdam since 2000.

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