Just how many bears are in Black Mountain anyway?

Sheridan Hill

Got a question about something in the Swannanoa Valley? The Question Corner is a semi-regular feature that will get answers for you. Submit your questions to news@blackmountainnews.com or PO Box 9, Black Mountain, NC 28711. The Black Mountain News is creating a few questions until reader-submitted questions come in more regularly.

YOU ASKED: While at Town Hardware recently, I heard a rumor that the number of black bear between Old Fort and Black Mountain is the highest in the U.S. per square mile. Is that true? Also, how do you keep a bear out of your trash?

ANSWER: The human population increase in Western North Carolina continues to create the problem of the encroachment of houses, stores, driveways and roads into what is and has historically been undisturbed bear habitat. That means that bears have to increase their range to find a place to live and to find wild food - or pick the low-hanging fruit of garbage cans. These conditions continue to create more bear sightings and more bear-to-human interactions.

Bears, coyotes, raccoons and such are monitored by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. So we spoke with Justin McVey, wildlife biologist for our district, about bears in WNC.

“Their range is expanding,” McVey confirmed, “and their population has been increasing 6 percent each year over the past number of years.”

McVey would not compare our bear population to that of other states. But the N.C. Wildlife Commission estimates that we have 15,000 black bear in the state and that perhaps 5,000 live in WNC. Black bear are found in about 40 states in the U.S.

In 2005, residents of Buncombe, Caswell, and Craven counties were included in focus groups gathered by the commission. The resultant study indicated 72 percent of Buncombe County residents had had a bear interaction.

A female black bear’s “home” ranges between one and 50 square miles, whereas a male will range up to 290 square miles for food. The reason so many mothers are seen with cubs is that she will feed and protect them for about a year and a half.

There had never been a report of an unprovoked bear attack in the state until last summer in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Because they typically return to the places they were captured, “problem” bears are killed rather than removed.

The wildlife commission responds to concerns about bears in part by increasing the hunting quota. Hunting takes care of problem bears and make others associate people with negative consequences, the commission states. Human beings are the only predators of black bear.

Round trash cans cannot be made bear-resistant, but the rectangular ones can be made secure by drilling holes in the corners and using bolts. McVey recommends a Virginia state government webpage, dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/bear/bear-resistant-retrofit-polycart.pdf (or simply search in your browser for “Virginia bear resistant polycart”). Elliott Motlow, a Black Mountain handyman at retrofitasheville.com, will come to your house and retrofit your rectangular trash can to make it bear-resistant or sell you one he has retrofitted.

Black bear are omnivores that typically weigh 200-400 pounds and need to consume an enormous number of calories each day. Trash cans to a bear are like catnip to cats, and various entities in Buncombe County are working to educate the public about the importance of making garbage cans bear-resistant so that our bears will remain in the wild where they belong.

“They are neither dangerous nor cuddly pets,” the commission website states. “It is best to avoid these extreme views and instead show a healthy respect for this magnificent forest animal.”

Black Mountain resident Sheridan Hill is a personal biographer, a native Tar Heel, and a terrible know-it-all.