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May 1, 2009

DNR warns of roaming black bears due to Myrtle Beach wildfires

Recent wildfires in the Myrtle Beach area burned thousands of acres along with numerous homes and property, but there is another consequence homeowners in the area should be aware of: Black bears, along with other animals, were displaced and will begin roaming in search of desirable food sources.

Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve, only minutes from the neon lights and manicured golf courses of Myrtle Beach, was hit hard with nearly 8,000 of the 9,383-acre preserve ravaged by fire. Due to public safety concerns and mop-up of smoldering areas, Lewis Ocean Bay will be closed until further notice. Biologists have estimated more than 200 bears in roughly 300,000 acres of occupied bear habitat in Georgetown, Horry and Marion counties.

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, even before the devastating wildfires.

"Most people in South Carolina want to see bears continue to thrive in the state," said Deanna Ruth, a S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildlife biologist based at Samworth Wildlife Center in Georgetown County. "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 Ruth, "A Homeowner's Guide: Living with Bears" offers common-sense advice to homeowners that will help them avoid unpleasant encounters with 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.

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 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, Ruth 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 time bears emerge from their dens and summer foods such as berries ripen. 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.

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. Place garbage out only during the day of collection if the area is served by a garbage collection service. 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.

* 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 dangerous 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.

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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