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Living in bear country: What to do if you run into one

Bear in forest play

By James Mathews- With spring turning to summer, many residents throughout the area are sure to encounter the largest native mammals: the black bear.

North Carolina Wildlife Commission Biologist for District Nine, Justin McVey shared some information that he hopes will be helpful to residents. “It’s the normal time of the year where bears are coming out of hibernation. They are starting to move around looking for food. And some of the natural food sources have not come out yet–the fruits they are used to eating, such as blueberries, blackberries, all that kind of stuff. They are just kind of roaming looking for food right now.”

While bears are seemingly more prevalent and being seen in areas not seen before, the population is relatively normal. “For the past number of years, we’ve seen an increase in the bear population. It has been increasing 6% per year. It’s also expanding. People that didn’t have bears are starting to see bears. That’s just an artifact of the normal population growth,” McVey says.

However, this past fall he says, acorns were plentiful. “Usually when you have that, what you see is a bumper crop in cubs. There is a lot of good nutrition for the mothers. We do expect to see more cubs this year. It’ll probably really manifest itself next year when those cubs are a year old, a year and a half old.”

McVey notes that he receives a lot of phone calls this time of year, largely in regards to bear encounters. “It’s just people who have bears on their property, getting into their trash. People who aren’t comfortable with bears.”

An unfortunate by-product of such encounters are when the wildlife interact with domestic animals, such as livestock or pets. “I do get a couple of calls where bears have gotten people’s goats or chickens or beehives and on occasion, we do have pet dogs who do get killed by bears,” McVey said. “Most of the time the dogs go after the bears and the bears just defend themselves and that generally doesn’t bode well for the dogs. It’s not necessarily a predatory thing.”

McVey also shared some details about black bear behavior. “I tell folks that I’m really glad I’m a wildlife biologist here where we have black bears and don’t have grizzly bears. A lot of black bears will eat everything. They are not really a predatory bear, in the sense that they are going to come after and eat people. Black bears are very food motivated. They are looking for an easy meal. Around here, that easy meal’s going to be garbage cans, bird feeders, pet food, things of that nature. If they can get all their nutrients of that, there is no reason to do anything else.”

McVey notes that if a bear becomes treed, “It’s not that they can’t get back down, it’s that they just don’t want to. If you just leave them alone, the bears will come down on their own.” He does specify that if a bear exhibits predatory behavior such as stalking, that is cause for contacting him, though he notes that behavior is very rare.

While black bear attacks are rare, individuals still need to be safe. McVey says that if an individual encounters a bear, they should put their hands above their head to appear larger and yell at the bear. “Most of the time those bears are going to go the other way. If for some reason they don’t go the other way, you back up slowly and you go the other way.”

McVey says, “What I tell folks is, you live in bear country. You’re going to have bears. So you just have to understand that. If you don’t have those food sources out for them, like trash cans and bird feeders, those bears may come through your area, but they may not have a reason to stay. Ninety-nine point nine percent of those bear problems can be solved by removing those human sources of food.”

For more information about bears and what to do if you have them near you, visit <>.

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