BearWise encourages urban communities to safely coexist with bears

Ezra Maille
Black Mountain News
Mama bear is training her cubs in the fine art of bird feeder raiding.

Led by local resident Kiersten Hall, a Black Mountain neighborhood has embraced the strategies of BearWise to coexist with bears, aiming to officially apply the program to the town. However, it may be a while, according to town officials. 

Hall, the chair of the Black Mountain BearWise committee, partnered with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission to form the committee in her Black Mountain neighborhood. The committee learned the principles of coexisting with bears from biologists from the commission. 

Hall said the goal now is to have the entire town recognized by the program. 

BearWise exists as a regional program put in place in 2018 as a result of the work of biologists across the Southeast coming together to create science-based messaging promoting coexistence between humans and bears. 

"The overarching idea here is that you have a mountain house here in North Carolina, a beach house down in Florida, you know how to coexist with black bears no matter where you are," said Ashley Hobbs, the assistant black bear and furbearer biologist with the Wildlife Commission.

Hobbs said BearWise has been widely accepted in North Carolina. Buncombe County in particular was targeted by the program due to "a third to two-thirds" of bear complaints throughout the state coming from the one county, according to Hobbs.

Black Mountain Town Manager Josh Harrold hopes to use the program Hall has in place as a pilot to see how effective it could be before applying BearWise to the whole town. He said given Hall's neighborhood's success, the program could be put in place, but would need to meet a few requirements first. 

"That's going to take some time," Harrold said. "We would have to have more things in place. Folks need actual garbage cans and not just loose trash in bags. We don't have that requirement currently." 

To expand the project from a single neighborhood to the whole town, Harrold said the town would need to start with spreading the word, pushing the initiative and providing residents of Black Mountain with closed, roll-out garbage cans. He said this would not be cheap but would be beneficial to residents, workers and the town as a whole. 

"I think it makes the town look cleaner, it's safer for our workers to not have to handle the trash itself," Harrold said. 

A family of bears near the garden of Lyndall Noyles-Brownell.

BearWise methods have been adopted by the Asheville neighborhoods of Mountain Meadows I & II and certain areas of Black Mountain. Communities in Tennessee and Florida are also making commitments to the BearWise strategies to see positive impacts on conservation efforts. 

Being recognized as a BearWise community means Hall's neighborhood gets a website with information readily available, complete with a reporting mechanism for alerting the community of bear activity.

Hall said the activity reporting function allows residents to document the bear activity depending on the severity, ranging from green to yellow to red, red being the most dangerous. She said so far the program has only had three reports, two green and one yellow. 

"All these reports go to the people on our committee that monitor them," Hall said. "If it's red, it goes to NC Wildlife." 

Seeing an uptick in calls regarding bears across the Southeast contributed to the biologists coming together to create meaningful messaging to promote coexistence. With the launch of the BearWise website, Hobbs said the program is easily accessible for residents. 

"We have messaging that we know works, we know is effective in promoting coexistence," Hobbs said. 

BearWise breaks down various guidelines for coexisting with bears in urban areas as well as in outdoor endeavors. The program mainly seeks to educate communities on interactions with bears around the home through the six BearWise basics:

  • Never feed or approach bears.
  • Secure food, garbage and recycling.
  • Remove bird feeders when bears are active.
  • Never leave pet food outdoors.
  • Clean and store grills.
  • Alert neighbors to bear activity.

Although the black bear population was nearly lost, Hobbs said North Carolina experienced a turnaround in the mid-1950s from a few hundred bears to 20,000 across the state. The tourism element of Black Mountain and Asheville further adds to the increased interactions between bears and people, according to Hobbs. 

"We have more bears, more people, urban sprawl," Hobbs said. "So we just have people and bears coming into contact way more often."

This black bear has a bird's eye image of the forest from a deck. She also has three babies to keep check on.

Hobbs said bears living in urban and downtown areas have a high mortality rate due to getting hit by cars and meeting intolerant residents.

Through BearWise, Hall's Black Mountain neighborhood became more intentional in its efforts to minimize interactions with bears. Hall said residents took down bird feeders, secured trash and made noise when necessary so as to alert bears of human presence. 

Hall hopes to further the Black Mountain partnership with BearWise by implementing the program with the town and adding resources to the town website. 

"I'm just trying to get this installed," Hall said. "However it morphs and grows, great."

The impact on the local community has shown neighbors recommending BearWise as a resource, educating the public directly through the efforts of biologists such as Hobbs and seeing people use the tools the program has provided.

"Ultimately, people and bears benefit," Hobbs said. "People are more safe when we're coexisting with black bears and the bears are more safe too."