By Don Mallicoat –
In a recent Asheville Citizen-Times headline article we were warned about an upcoming baby black bear boom thanks to an abundant mast crop and mild winter. Baby bears are usually born in late winter and due to a low hunter harvest along with the other conditions wildlife biologists are forecasting an even larger number of bears in the mountains next year. Bear biologist Mike Carraway with the WRC was quoted in the article as saying, “You can’t win. No matter what we do, the population still increases.” I know Mike and have great respect for him. But Mike, you need to come clean and say the WRC is not doing enough. First let’s look at exactly what bears need.
Bears are naturally found in forests. And like all wildlife, their forest needs vary by season, and food is a key factor. Problems start when bears emerge from hibernation in the spring. First, bears naturally start looking for food. In a true forest environment they find that in openings where they can browse on grass and clover, or eat insects, larvae and ants. In our region’s forest, much of that open space is provided by timber harvests. Over the past ten years National Forest timber harvests have decreased significantly, thus decreasing spring forage.
When summer arrives berries ripen and insects are also available. Again, berries are typically found in forest openings and along open trails and roads (think about all the blackberries you see in sunlit areas). If those openings with berries and insects are not there in their natural forest habitat, they turn to the next option in our back yards.
In the fall, bears start storing up fat for the winter hibernation. Their primary source of food during this period is hard mast like acorns and hickory nuts from older forests. They also eat wild cherries, wild grapes and pokeberries that are now ripe. So during the fall they need both older forests for hard mast and the edges of openings for grapes and berries.
The real reason we are seeing so many bears in our neighborhoods is not simply because we are invading their habitat, although that is partly true. The most basic problem is that the public land we have in the mountains is not being managed for wildlife habitat. Another bear biologist once told me that bears think about two things: food and reproducing in that order. Look again at the bears dietary needs above. When you do not cut timber to provide openings for grass and bugs for spring forage the bears will travel great distances to find food. And if that source is your bird feeder, outside dog food, or trash can that is where they will stay.
The same can be said for summer forage. If you have ever spent time in our forests in the summer where do you find berries and bugs? Along sunlit openings like roads. Managing for wildlife by cutting timber, i.e. a scientifically managed forest provides that. Have you ever noticed that bear sightings and complaints decrease in late fall and winter. Why? Because that is when there is sufficient food, hard mast, in their natural environment to sustain bears needs. That is when bears do need a mature forest.
But what do we do? The Asheville City Council recently voted to not allow timber harvest on its 17,000 acre watershed in the Swannanoa valley. Did the Council contact the WRC about the best way to manage that land for wildlife? No, they gave into their liberal preservationist partners. Our Pisgah National Forest has been mismanaged because of a bunch of whining environmentalist so that less than one percent is young forest growth which doesn’t provide nearly enough habitat for bears or any other wildlife. Science shows that a forest needs to be 10 percent young growth for wildlife.
Yet our Wildlife Resources Commission wrings its hands and cries, “Oh, what are we to do about the bear problem?” The answer is simple: Get aggressive with city, state and federal agencies about properly managing our public land for wildlife in the mountains. And it’s not just bears. Deer, turkey, grouse, golden-wing warblers and a host of other critters need a managed forest. I’m going to make a prediction. If the WRC does not pursue an aggressive course of habitat management in the area around Asheville soon, someone will either be mauled or killed by a bear in one of our suburban neighborhoods. It won’t be the bears fault. That is now its natural habitat.