Can bears and people coexist? Scientists find answers with Asheville study

North Carolina scientists study how bears are adapting to Asheville’s growing urban environment.

Bear sightings in Asheville

ASHEVILLE — A bear sighting might evoke the instinct to stay away from perceived danger. But for North Carolinian Mike Ruiz, his job is to stay and observe—right in his own neighborhood.

“They get used to us,” says Mike Ruiz, standing at the end of his driveway while looking around his Asheville neighborhood. “In fact, I see some neighbors yelling to leave the garbage alone, but they are persistent and if there is an interesting smell coming from that garbage, the can will be tipped over and rooted through.” 

Ruiz is the community's recorder of bear sightings, which are frequent in this Asheville area. Neighbors alert him to bears, he records video and posts it to a neighborhood news website. 

He keeps a sharp eye and a video camera ready for when Ursus americanus, the North American black bear, comes visiting. 

“I get excited to record everything. And one day one of the neighbors warned me about the mama bear in the yard,” Ruiz recalls, pointing to a yard up the street. “And suddenly I realized mama is there, the babies are over there and I’m in the middle. I was nervous.” 

He’s learned to be a little more careful and shoots video from inside a car. 

“The car is not only safer but once a bear goes into the woods I try to figure out where they will come out so I can get video of them crossing the street,” Ruiz adds. “I think people are a little scared sometimes and they appreciate when I post the video of where the bears are. It’s especially true of people who walk their dogs because the dogs will go crazy and we don’t want the bear to hurt the dog. So this is a way to avoid the dog encounter.” 

Can bears and people coexist?

This raises the question: can bears and people coexist? It turns out, there has never been a study about human-bear interaction. Even though, in the past decade, more and more people are moving into areas with large bear populations. So far, anecdotal evidence shows bears are tolerating the presence of humans much better than expected. 

The black bear is a North Carolina wildlife success story. There were only about 1,500 black bears in the state in the 1970s. But with research, changes in hunting regulations and the creation of bear sanctuaries, the black bear made a comeback.

Now, there are an estimated 17,000-20,000 black bears in the state. About 7,000 live in the western mountains while the rest live in the coastal plain in the eastern half of the state where there is plenty of open farmland and forest. 

“Our bears have shown they are very tolerant of humans and human disturbances,” says Colleen Olfenbuttel, a wildlife biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. “So we are launching a study to see not only how the bears are doing in this more urban environment, but how to educate people to coexist with bears, to be tolerant of these bears and to be sure we are managing these bears based on science and the best knowledge possible.” 

The urban bear study

The five-year urban bear study focuses on Asheville and Buncombe County. That’s where the most human-bear interactions are reported. The study involves trapping bears and giving them radio-collars with which they are then tracked. Some of the bears Ruiz recorded and posted on his neighborhood website can be seen wearing the collars. 

For the bear study, the GPS systems on the bear collar will record a location every five minutes. Researchers want to see and study fine scale movements to find out how the bears are moving through Asheville, where they are finding food and where they are building dens. Once outside of the city limits, the collars will transmit a location every one to two hours. 

Researchers believe their findings will help scientists manage populations not only in North Carolina but across the country. There are plenty of questions to answer: 

  • How are bears using this urban-rural part of the state? 
  • What is the bear survival rate and what are the causes of mortality? 
  • Are bears coming into Asheville and staying, or are bears in the area mating and building a new population? 
  • How are the bears moving about? 
  • Are the bears, having consumed all of the artificial food sources such as garbage and birdseed, healthy? Are they bigger? 
  • What’s their timing of denning? What does the den look like?   

While there are many questions to answer, scientists have already made one major discovery. The findings show bears and people coexist quite well. In fact, bears can thrive in a major city. 

The human role 

Still, Justin McVey, a wildlife biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission warns that even though bears may be more tolerant of people they are still wild animals and should be treated as such. Bears are not animals to fear but they are animals that should be respected, he says. 

“In many ways wildlife management is people management,” adds McVey. “The main thing to remember if you are living in bear country is to keep those human-caused food sources put up. That means keep those trash cans secured, don’t put them out before trash day. It also means keeping those bird feeders up because birds aren’t clean and food will be thrown all over.” 

Researchers say the study shows that bears are very adaptable, very smart and they don’t mind people nearly as much as people mind them. The bears simply go about their lives denning and living in close proximity to humans. As long as there is ample food nothing changes. 

"The discovery that bears are so adaptable is surprising but also reassuring,” says Chris DePerson, professor of fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation at North Carolina State University. “It makes me feel good because wildlife is part of North Carolina; it’s part of our history, our culture, our landscape and it’s important to have these animals in our ecosystem.” 

Ruiz, with his camera always ready to record the bears, adds, “Lots of folks like to see the wildlife, and while the bears may be a bit unnerving at times, they are beautiful.” 

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