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#06-165 June 26, 2006

Biologist says people can learn to co-exist with black bears

Many new homes are built in occupied bear range each year, according to state natural resources officials. Despite people moving into bear territory, bear numbers have increased over the last 10 to 15 years, and as a result, bears and people are coming into contact with each other more frequently than before. Both bear and people are expanding their ranges throughout the eastern United States, and especially in the Southeast.

“Many people in South Carolina want to see bears continue to thrive in the state,” said Skip Still, blackBlack bear bear biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources based in Clemson. “Therefore, the challenge is to learn how problems with bears can be avoided in residential areas that are in or near bear habitat.”

For more information on black bears in South Carolina, visit the DNR black bear Web site at http://www.dnr.sc.gov/wildlife/bear/index.html.

Most injuries associated with bear/human encounters are the result of people feeding bears or when bears are feeding on human sources of food, according to Still. No one has been injured by a black bear in South Carolina in recorded history, and only two deaths to humans have been attributed to bears in the Southeast during the last 100 years. People often feed bears indirectly by leaving trash, pet food, and other enticing items in places easily accessible to bear,. Simply observing a bear walking through a yard is not cause for alarm and should be viewed as a positive experience. Make sure all garbage is stored or handled as described below and do not provoke or feed the bear. Alert others in the area and request that everyone follow the same procedures.

What attracts bears into a residential area? Often, houses are located near areas already occupied by bears. Bears will naturally investigate food odors and are attracted to many different foods such as garbage, bird seed and suet, pet foods, compost piles, and grease on barbecue grills. Bear have a very keen since of smell. Once a bear receives a “reward,” such as one of these foods, it may return to the same area several times (even after food is removed) or search around the general area for similar foods. Some bears become fairly tolerant of humans in these situations and appear tame. Remember, Still said, bears are wild animals and are unpredictable. Therefore, the solution to most bear problems is to remove the source of attraction before conflicts occur. In South Carolina, it is illegal to entice bears by any means. The law states that you must take away the attractants when bears are coming to your yard.

Most bear problems in residential areas are temporary and usually occur in the spring and summer months. Between the times bears emerge from their dens and summer foods such as berries ripen, natural food supplies are low and not very nutritious. This causes bears to travel more in search of food. Also, breeding season occurs from June to August, and male bears tend to roam more in search of mates. Finally, during this same time period, young males are dispersing to new territories and often wander into residential areas. Usually, dispersing bears remain in an area less than two weeks. By keeping food away from bears during those times of increased travel, many problems may be avoided.

“People often ask us, ‘Why not just move problem bears?’” Still said. “There are several reasons why moving problem bears is not an option. First and foremost, moving a bear does not address the problem. If the problem is not fixed, other bears will move in to take advantage of the food source, or the bear that was moved may return to become a problem once more. Second, catching a wild animal such as a bear puts both bears and people at risk of injury, especially in residential areas. Third, most people wish to keep bears as a viable species in South Carolina, and if bear and humans are going to coexist, human attitudes and habits must change. After all, humans are the top of the food chain. Finally, there are no longer areas that are sufficiently remote to ensure that a relocated bear would not encounter other residences and possibly become a nuisance there.”

So how are bear problems best handled? Many things can be done to minimize or eliminate the chances that bears will get into garbage or become a problem in an area. Any of the methods described below work best if implemented as soon as the problem starts, or better still, before problems occur. Once a bear establishes a feeding pattern, it will take longer to encourage the bear to move on. By following some of the tips listed below, residents can usually prevent the bear from being rewarded the first time.

Black bears once roamed the entire state of South Carolina and most of North America. Due to a number of factors, resident bear populations are found only in the mountains and upper coastal counties of South Carolina.

“Black bears are an important part of South Carolina’s natural heritage,” Still said. “As people move into bear country in increasing numbers, it is ultimately human attitudes toward bears that will determine whether bears will continue to exist in the state. Unfortunately, bears are viewed either as dangerous animals or cuddly pets. It is best to avoid these extreme views and instead show a healthy respect for this magnificent forest animal. The DNR has provided some simple, common-sense steps you can take to do your part in ensuring that bears and people can live together. As a temporary or permanent resident in bear country, take these steps to avoid attracting bears and to prevent conflicts from occurring. Remember, prevention is the best medicine!”

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