With a bumper crop of berries and acorns last year, black bear populations in and around Asheville continue to grow as the city limits provide a de facto sanctuary, wildlife experts say.
“One of the reasons is that Asheville is kind of a unique place,” said Mike Carraway, wildlife biologist for the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. “Because within the Asheville city limits there are lots of little blocks of woods here and there that bears can stay in, and the food sources that they are taking advantage of are bird feeders and trash, primarily — and people are feeding them.”
According to the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, today, approximately 17,000-20,000 bears populate North Carolina — occupying about 60 percent of the state’s total land area. Carraway said prior to the 1970s black bear populations were threateningly low in the wilds of North Carolina, but due to the establishment of repopulation sanctuaries the species recovered expansively over the last 45 years.
Human development, once considered unsupportive to the survival of wildlife, counterintuitively provides a safe and plentiful environment for many species like black bears that find food and avoid being hunted within city limits, Carraway said.
“Back then the biologists at the time thought, well, bears just can’t live with people – with high densities of people,” Carraway said. “In recent years we’ve found out that’s really not true, bears are very adaptable.”
According to the NC Wildlife Resources Commission’s annual harvest report, 638 black bears were killed in the 17 mountain counties during last year’s hunting season — about half of 2013’s total of 1,207.
Carraway said this decrease might have been a direct result of last summer and fall’s heavy soft and hard masts — the heaviest in 30 years. Plentiful natural crops such as berries and acorns drew bears deeper into the forests in search of food, keeping them out of roadways where hunters commonly begin tracking them, he said.
“When they’ve had a lot of good food to eat and they’re healthy, they tend to have more cubs, and the cubs survive better,” Carraway said. “Almost every bear that we’ve looked at this year has had cubs and some of them, a lot of cubs. We generally think of the average litter size being about two, but over the years we’ve seen, in Asheville in particular, a lot of three and four cub litters and even five cub litters on occasion.”
In early spring, around the first of April, mother black bears begin to emerge from their dens with cubs of about 3 months old, Carraway said. With their numbers up from last year’s low hunting harvest and larger litters of cubs, black bear sightings in and around Asheville this spring should be common, he said.
Justin McVey, district biologist for the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, works with Carraway, but also responds to many of the nuisance bear and bear sighting calls in the county. Starting from the beginning of the season, in mid-March, he has received about 20 calls, which he said seems like a lot for this early on.
“This year we’ve had more than normal amounts of bears breaking into chicken houses and getting chickens,” McVey said. “So, the way it works is bears come out of their dens, they’re hungry, they start looking for food and a lot of things haven’t really bloomed yet. So, they’re moving around more looking for food.”
Aside from nuisance bear calls, McVey also works with both Carraway and doctorate student, Nicholas Gould from NC State University, on the North Carolina Urban/Suburban Bear Study, which McVey said is the first of its kind.
Centered in Asheville, Gould will lead the project and analyze, write up and present the final research on black bear populations and movement found at the end of the five year study, he said. A cooperative project between NC State University and the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, Gould said the first field study for the project began about one year ago in April 2014.
“It’s the first urban bear study in the south east, and it will be the longest running study across the east coast,” Gould said. “So, it’s not brand new but it’s the first of its kind.”
The objectives of study will be to determine survival rates, causes of mortality, travel corridors, and reproductive parameters for black bears in and around the Asheville watershed, Gould said. As the second field study for the project was recently completed, this research in its early stages still leaves a lot of questions unanswered he explained, but the current findings shed light on aspects known little about before.
“It’s a pretty unique study, and through that study we found out that they are denning in the city. As far as it benefitting the bears that they are denning in the city, that’s one of the questions we are kind of looking at,” McVey said. “It’s a pretty smart survival strategy because they have plenty of food. They do have plenty of wooded areas to take cover and have dens. So, I think it’s probably a good thing for the bears now, but at some point as the bear population increases, you know, it may not be a good strategy but right now it is.”