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** Archived Article - please check for current information. **

April 6, 2011

Learn to co-exist with bears says DNR biologist

As springtime temperatures rise, black bears will awaken from their winter dens and start to roam the Upstate, according to a wildlife biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. Bears are primarily searching for food since their natural food sources, such as berries and plants, are not widely available yet.

No injuries or deaths have been attributed to black bears in South Carolina, according to Richard Morton, wildlife biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) based in Clemson. 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 point to an increasing bear population.

"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 lead to its death.

In fact, 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, only one of these vacant positions has been filled. Therefore, DNR will only have limited employees to cover bear complaints in the Upstate.

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. In some situations bear-proof trash cans and dumpsters may be the only viable option, especially for people living in the northern portion of the Upstate. Last year DNR only relocated four bears and hopefully none will have to be relocated this year. Currently, North Carolina does not relocate any bears regardless of the situation.

While encounters with black bears are rare, Morton said to treat all black bears with caution.
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. There have been few injuries from black bears in the eastern United States and only three fatalities in the last century.

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, so they call the authorities.  Bears often get confused in these situations and end up "treed" amidst a public-media circus. 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 other foods."

Each year the DNR gets reports of more and more bear sightings and these sightings are beginning to occur outside the mountain area. These bears are usually young males chased away by their mothers, who are preparing to breed.

Most of these wandering bears are just passing through, but if there is an easy meal lying around, 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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