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May 24, 2010

DNR biologist says black bear population expanding; people need to learn to co-exist with bears

No injuries or deaths have been attributed to black bears in South Carolina, according to a wildlife biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. But as more people move into bear territory in South Carolina’s mountains and coastal areas, encounters between humans and bears are on the increase. Also, surveys are pointing toward an increasing bear population in South Carolina.

Scent station surveys of black bear in the mountains have increased dramatically in the past five years, according to Richard Morton, a wildlife biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) based in Clemson. While scent stations received 58 percent "hits" in the mountain areas of Oconee, Pickens and Greenville counties in 2003, that number has been on the rise and by 2009 had jumped to 76 percent. Also, every county in South Carolina except Bamberg County had reported bear sightings by 2009.

With bear encounters on the rise, Morton said it’s increasingly important that bears not associate people and their homes as a source of food. "If you feed a bear, either on purpose or accidentally, then they come to associate man with food, and that’s not good," said Morton. "A wild bear is very wary of man and usually no threat at all, but a bear that has been fed loses that natural fear. It’s less likely to be afraid of people.

Two cases were reported in recent years of people feeding bears from their back porches. One of the bears attracted to the area had to be relocated 90 miles away but was back within a week. If a bear will not stay away, it has to be destroyed, Morton said. So don’t feed bears, Morton warns, because instead of helping the bear, the feeding might indirectly lead to its death.

Feeding bears is illegal in South Carolina, and violations are punishable by a $500 fine or 30 days in jail.

Trapping and relocations of black bear in South Carolina are being phased out by DNR due to the current budget situation and limited staff. Four out of six DNR employees who handled bear complaints have retired recently, and with a declining state budget, those positions will likely remain unfilled. Therefore, DNR will only have two employees trying to cover bear complaints in four Upstate counties.
Morton also said it has been shown that trapping and relocation does not work, as the bear will return if a food source remains at the site. Last year, DNR trapped and tagged a nuisance bear that was relocated nearly 50 miles away, yet the bear returned all the way back to Greenville County.

While encounters with black bears are rare, Morton said to treat all black bears with caution. Because bears are curious and quickly become accustomed to human activity, they may develop aggressive food-seeking habits that make them dangerous. Morton offered these simple rules to remember when camping, hiking or fishing in the mountains of South Carolina:

Black bear is the only species of bear found in the eastern United States, according to Morton, and some 600,000 black bears are known to exist in North America. On the average continent-wide, one person per year is killed by black bear, and only two of these fatalities have been in the eastern United States, with most occurring in Canada. Only 3.5 people per year are injured seriously by black bears, with most of these taking place in Canada.

South Carolina has a brief black bear hunting season open only during October in its mountain counties—Greenville, Oconee and Pickens. With some regularity, coastal and mountain bears fall victim to highway collisions, particularly as people build more roads and houses in bear habitat.

But for the other 11 months of the year and in the greatest part of South Carolina, bears are not hunted and are free to roam wherever they want. Conflicts arise as roaming bears come into contact with humans unfamiliar with bears and their ways. Too often people become afraid for their lives, so they call the authorities, and bears get confused by human reactions and often end up "treed" amidst a public-media circus before being allowed to wander away on their own.

The best option for dealing with a bear in a tree, according to Morton, is to leave the area and eventually the bear will climb down the tree and leave the area.

"A decade ago we rarely had these kinds of problems," Morton said. "Now, more and more people are moving to bear country, and they are bound to meet up with bears at some point. It doesn’t help that bears can smell things a long ways off. So if a bear wanders into a neighborhood, the best advice is for everyone in the area to remove all bear attractants such as bird feeders, trash, dog food and the like."

Each year the DNR gets reports of more and more bear sightings, and these sightings are beginning to be outside the core mountain area and in some fringe areas. These bears are usually young males chased away by sows, or female bears, who are preparing to breed, or by dominant male bears, who perceive the young males as competition.

Most of these wandering bears are just passing through, but if there is an easy meal lying around, of course they will take advantage of it, Morton said. The key to dealing with bears is not giving them a reason to hang around. Morton recommends storing pet food indoors and keeping garbage securely contained.

Bears love to eat birdseed. Morton suggests removing bird feeders for a short time (the birds won’t starve) or bringing the feeders in at night until the bear has lost interest and moved away. Keep grills cleaned and covered. If you have beehives, protect them with electric fences.

"Just use common sense," Morton said. "Bear habitat keeps shrinking, and human habitat keeps expanding. Bears have to eat to survive, and when we’re in such close proximity, conflicts are bound to arise. Bears may wander close to humans, but if you don’t give them a reason to stay and eat, then very soon they’re headed back to the forest."

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