State researchers hope the four-year study, the first of its kind in the Southeast, will shed new light on how bears survive and even thrive in populated areas.
ASHEVILLE – An impressive male black bear that biologists captured and fitted with a GPS collar last week just east of Asheville likely didn’t care much for the experience.
But his participation in an intensive new study will help researchers learn more about the city’s growing population of urban and suburban bears.
State researchers hope the four-year study, the first of its kind in the Southeast, will shed new light on how bears survive and even thrive in populated areas — where they frequent, what they eat and about reproduction and mortality patterns. Knowledge gained will help researchers map out strategies for how bears and humans can better coexist.
The study, a collaboration between N.C. State University and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, kicked off earlier this month, with a focus on attaching collars equipped with GPS devices on bears.
“Hopefully, we can learn what these bears are doing — where, when and why they are using Asheville,” said N.C. State University wildlife researcher Nick Gould, who’s leading the project.
Researchers place a GPS collar on a large male black bear captured just east of Asheville as part of a project to learn more about Asheville’s growing urban and suburban bear population. April 24, 2014. Sabian Warren Sabian Warren
Biologists have set out a dozen baited culvert traps — large metal containers with a doors that slam shut when a bear goes inside — in and around Asheville, all on private land with landowners’ cooperation. Captured bears are tranquilized to allow researchers to attach the collars, then released unharmed a short time later. Biologists plan to keep collars on about 40 bears.
“I’ve never seen a better response from landowners,” Gould said. “There’s just been overwhelming support.”
He said Asheville is the ideal site for the study.
“There are a lot of bears and a lot of people who like seeing bears,” Gould said. “People want to live with bears. We just want to make sure we’re living with them correctly.”
The GPS collars are programmed to automatically unclasp and fall off collared bears after three years, or collars can be unclasped by biologists remotely at any time.
Data from the collars will allow researchers to get an in-depth look at the habits of city bears, which despite their size are elusive and difficult to study. The collars will update biologists about a bear’s location every 15 minutes.
“It’s as close to real time as you can get,” Gould said.
Researchers will be able to determine whether bears spend all of their time in the city or come and go depending on food supplies. It will tell them what bears eat, including whether they are supplementing natural foods by raiding garbage cans, bird feeders and other human sources of food.
“I have a feeling we’re going to find these bears are near peoples’ homes, and they don’t know it,” said Wildlife Resources Commission biologist Colleen Olfenbuttel. “The information we get from the study is going to provide us the science to make management decisions here but also in any developed area where bears are starting to populate.”
Biologists also will be able to track female bears to their dens to learn more about den sites and reproduction rates, getting a better idea of the number of bears in the city.
Managing bears could come in the form of minimizing human food sources, or by changing hunting rules to allow more bears to be harvested, among other options. But researchers said it’s too early to say what findings may come from the study because the data haven’t been collected yet.
Most nuisance bear problems stem from people either intentionally or inadvertently providing food for the animals, Olfenbuttel said.
While a few other states, including Pennsylvania, have conducted studies on urban bears, the Asheville project is considerably longer in duration and should yield more conclusive information, she said. It will be the longest-running study of its kind yet in the eastern U.S.
Why so many bears?
The bear comeback story in North Carolina began in 1970, when the Wildlife Resources Commission established a number of bear sanctuaries, where hunting isn’t allowed, on national forest land. At the time, bear numbers had dwindled to as few as 1,500 animals statewide.
“There were very few bears,” Wildlife Resources Commission biologist Mike Carraway said. “People wondered if they would disappear.”
Today the state’s bear population is estimated at 17,000-20,000, most of them in rural eastern North Carolina. Western North Carolina has an estimated 6,500-8,000 bears.
Bear numbers slowly began to increase after 1970, then accelerated about a decade ago partly because of increased land development, Carraway said. New housing developments create de facto sanctuaries, he said.
“It’s counterintuitive because typically development is bad for wildlife,” Carraway said. “Development actually is protection for bears because it creates bear sanctuaries.”
Bears are opportunistic omnivores, quickly learning how to take advantage of any food source available and how to live in close proximity to humans, he said. The animals can live up to 30 years, with the main causes of mortality being hunting and vehicle collisions.
“Over time, we found that bears are much more adaptable to human population than we ever thought they were,” Carraway said.
At least one Buncombe municipality, Montreat, has taken proactive steps to prevent bear problems. Town officials in 2003 approved an ordinance that requires residents to wait until the day of garbage collection to place trash at the curb, unless they have a bear-proof metal container. Town leaders also launched a public education effort about bird feeders and other sources of food.
“A lot of people were putting their garbage out the night before, and that was causing a problem,” Montreat town manager Ron Nalley said.
Town residents today have few problems with bears, he said.
“It’s the exception rather than the rule now,” Nalley said.
Retiree Betty Andrews, a longtime resident of the Bent Creek area on the southern outskirts of Asheville, didn’t need a municipal directive for her and her husband, Dan, to change some of their habits.
The couple have learned to live with bears, putting out their garbage on the morning of pickup instead of the night before. They also now use a rope to hoist a bird feeder high into a tree, which the bears haven’t been able to reach.
Andrews, an Asheville native, said she’s seen firsthand the spike in bear numbers. Bear sightings increased in her neighborhood about five years ago, she said.
“I really don’t remember bears coming around before then,” she said. “They’ve crushed every bird feeder we’ve ever put out.”
Despite those issues, Andrews said she doesn’t mind the bears.
“This used to be all forest before they built the houses here,” she said. “We’re not afraid, but some people with little kids are concerned about it.”
Garbage collection in her neighborhood is on a Tuesday, but don’t tell the bears.
“They haven’t figured out trash day yet or they could make a killing,” she said.