HIGH COUNTRY — As bears expand into more parts of North Carolina and development results in people moving into new areas, bear encounters are likely to become more frequent.

In early July, Janet Shoaf of St. Petersburg, Fla., snapped pictures of bears enjoying their feeder at their Vilas cabin. At the Grandfather Marathon on July 13, runners kept their distance around mile 22 as a black bear joined the race for a few minutes along U.S. 221.

“Bears have always been at home here,” said Leesa Brandon of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the National Park Service.

According to media reports and a video of the incident on July 13, a visitor attempted to approach a mother black bear in Cades Cove, Tenn., located in the Great Smokies Mountain National Park, resulting in the bear bluff charging at the man, who was within 10 feet. While the man wasn’t identified, park rangers told the Knoxville News Sentinel that if a park ranger was present, the man would have been issued a ticket.

The National Park Service, which manages the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Appalachian Trail and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, has a rule where it’s illegal to willfully approach within 50 yards (150 feet) or any distance that “disturbs or displaces a bear” within park boundaries. Violation can result in fines of up to $5,000 and/or six months imprisonment, according to the NPS.

According to Adrianne Rubiaco of the Pisgah National Forest, a part of the U.S. Forest Service and National Forests in North Carolina, their office doesn’t have any rules on wildlife encroachment, but does offer safety tips.

The southeastern United States is becoming a larger habitat for black bears, with North Carolina alone home to between 17,000 and 20,000, according to BearWise, a black bear program developed by the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies to raise awareness on how to deal with native black bears.

The black bear range has expanded in North Carolina since 1971, according to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. At that time, bears only inhabited a number of areas in the mountains and coastal North Carolina. Now, black bears can be found in almost all of Eastern North Carolina and all of the mountainous parts of Western North Carolina.

Bear harvests were up in Avery County to 50 in 2017 from 43 the previous year, a 16-percent increase, according to most recent date from the NC Wildlife Resources Commission.

BearWise contributes this rise in habitat areas to conservation efforts and new attitudes.

Bear activity peaks during the summer, with a NCWRC study noting that between 1993 and 2011, human interaction with black bears peaks between May and August, accounting for 62 percent of all reported interactions during the time period.

While attacks by black bears are rare, they do occur, according to the National Park Service, who stresses that bear problems are caused by humans.

“Bear management is really people management; how visitors behave while in the park has an impact on the safety of bears,” the NPS states. “Bears that cause property damage or injure humans may have to be euthanized ... If you are careless with your food or litter, or allow a bear to get too close to you, you may be responsible for a bear’s death.”

In Beech Mountain, a fine of $1,000 per offense is enforced for any resident or visitor who feeds a bear, according to town code. The National Park Service’s states that park rangers issue citations for littering, feeding bears and for improper food storage, with fines of up to $5,000 and a jail sentence of six months.

“The bear’s keen sense of smell leads it to insects, nuts and berries, but the animal is also enticed by the tantalizing smells of human food and garbage such as hot dogs, apple cores, chips and watermelon rinds left on the ground in picnic areas, campgrounds and along trails,” the NPS states.

Unsecured garbage can lead to a change in a bear’s behavior and losing its fear of humans, the NPS states.

“Studies have shown that bears that lose their fear of people by obtaining human food and garbage never live as long as bears that feed on natural foods and are shy and afraid of people,” the NPS states. “Many are hit by cars and become easy targets for poachers.”

The NCWRC states that contrary to public opinion, they don’t typically trap and relocate bears “unless human safety is threatened,” due to most conflicts either being caused by people or the situation not warranting trapping and relocating. The NCWRC also said trapping and relocating bears is difficult and dangerous, would move the problem and that bears typically return to the original areas.

“If a bear’s behavior is escalating to bold and threatening behavior towards people, commission staff will euthanize the bear,” the NCWRC stated.

BearWise and the NCWRC offers six tips for bear encounters.

  • Secure food, garbage and recycling. Food and food odors attract bears, so don’t reward them with easily available food or garbage. Make sure to use bags of trash inside cans stored in a garage, sheds or other secure area; or use garbage cans or trash containers with a secure latching system or that are bear-resistant. Place trash outside as late as possible, on trash pick-up days — not the night before.
  • Remove bird feeders when bears are active. Birdseed and other grains have high calorie content, making them very attractive to bears.
  • Never leave pet food outdoors. Feed outdoor pets portion sizes that will be completely eaten during each meal and remove leftover food and food bowl.
  • Clean and store grills. After you use an outdoor grill, clean it thoroughly and make sure that all grease and fat is removed.
  • Alert neighbors to bear activity. See bears in the area or evidence of bear activity? Tell your neighbors and share info on how to avoid bear conflicts.

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