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April 18, 2008

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 have increased in numbers and range over the last 10 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. Bear sightings were reported in 33 South Carolina counties during the past three years.

"Many people in South Carolina want to see bears continue to thrive in the state," said Skip Still, black bear biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) based in Clemson. "Therefore, the challenge is to learn how problems with bears can be avoided."
           
A homeowner's guide to living with bears has been published by DNR, offering handy tips for peacefully co-existing with these fascinating mammals. Authored by Deanna Ruth, a DNR wildlife biologist based at Samworth Wildlife Center in Georgetown County, "A Homeowner's Guide: Living with Bears" offers common-sense rules to homeowners that will help them avoid unpleasant encounters with Ursus americanus, the black bear. The bear brochure also details some interesting natural history information on this often-feared and frequently misunderstood wildlife species.
           
To obtain a copy of the homeowner's guide to living with bears brochure, visit the DNR offices in Clemson, Georgetown or Florence, or call the Columbia DNR office at (803) 734-3886. The brochure is also available on the DNR Web site.

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, birdseed 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 at 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 get in a similar predicament 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.

* Do not allow bears access to garbage or other food. If you live in bear country, take your garbage away daily.  Do not feed bears under any circumstances. If the area is served by a garbage collection service, place garbage out only during the day of collection. Under no circumstances should garbage be left out overnight. Keep all garbage sites clean. Do not leave pet foods out overnight. If a bear has visited bird feeders, stop feeding birds for one to two weeks. Persons living in bear range should install "bear-proof" containers or use dumpsters with heavy gauge metal lids as a long-term solution to bear problems.

* Repellents. No repellents are registered for use on bears. Some have found that sprinkling ammonia or other strong disinfectants on garbage can mask the odor of food.

* Exclusion. The following tips have helped to prevent bear damage. Make sure dumpsters are bolted and locked and chain down heavy metal garbage cans and secure the lids. Wood or plastic dumpster lids do not keep bears out. Replace these with metal lids that can be locked and make sure sliding side doors can be latched so only humans can open them. Fencing around dumpsters or garbage collection areas can be very effective.  An electric fence powered with a high-voltage, low-impedance charger can exclude bears; however, this should only be done if safety precautions can be implemented to protect children and adults. A local DNR biologist can provide several electric fence designs if this measure is deemed appropriate.

* Frightening or scaring the bear. Shouting, clapping, blasting a car horn or motion-sensitive lights may scare off a bear temporarily. Do not taunt a bear if it fails to respond to your efforts to frighten it. These methods are only temporary solutions.

* Crowd control. Sometimes when a bear is sighted, crowds may gather. This seemingly harmless situation can be aggravated or became potentially harmful as the crowd grows. People can cause bears to display unpredictable behavior. Law enforcement personnel should disperse crowds and allow the bear to exit without interference.

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!"

DNR protects and manages South Carolina's natural resources by making wise and balanced decisions for the benefit of the state's natural resources and its people.


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