After all these years of writing about human interactions with bears, I have to ponder this eternal question: Why are the humans so stupid in these situations?
I’m starting to think the bears might be the smarter species.
If you missed it, Blue Ridge Parkway officials had to close a section of the scenic roadway near the Craggy Gardens Picnic Area just before Halloween because of “multiple documented reports of visitors feeding and attempting to hold a young bear in recent weeks at the Lane Pinnacle Overlook.” The Parkway is back open now, but it was shut down for a week because of these dinguses.
Pardon my language. I meant to say idiots.
I mean, seriously, who at this point thinks it’s a good idea to feed bears, much less try to cuddle one? If you haven’t heard the phrase, “A fed bear is a dead bear,” you don’t get out much.
See, once you start feeding a bear, it’s going to expect more easy food, continue hanging around humans, then likely become a pest and have to be euthanized. I have to think the consequences of bear hugging would likely result in a gentle reminder from nature that these are wild animals — you know, something like a mauling.
And then the bear would have to be put down.
“When people intentionally attract bears with trash and food it can lead to very dangerous situations,” Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent Tracy Swartout said in a news release about the incidents leading up to the road closure. “In this instance we want to give the bear a chance to lose interest in the area before the situation escalates and visitors or the bear are harmed.”
Allow me to state obvious tips that most of us have heard a few thousand times but clearly still need repeating: Never feed a bear, or attempt to interact with one.
The minimum safe distance from bears is 50 feet, “but 100 feet or more is better,” George T. “Tom” Davis, a wildlife biologist with the Blue Ridge Parkway, told me.
“And obviously don’t feed or approach bears or any wildlife,” Davis said. “If everybody had followed that at Lane Pinnacle, we wouldn’t have had to close the road.”
Bear saga had started weeks earlier
Davis said he first became aware of the Lane Pinnacle Overlook issues Oct. 17 when he saw some Facebook posts about it.
“It showed the young bear approaching cars, standing up next to a car,” Davis said. “It kind of exploded on social media, and we started getting multiple reports — phone calls, emails — and we started seeing additional social media posts about a young bear basically approaching visitors and visitors approaching the bear.”
The bear’s behavior told Davis that people had been feeding it. Parkway staff went up to the overlook and witnessed the bear approaching cars, motorcycles, and even bicycles. They tried to scare the bear away with shouting, hand claps, and air horns, but it was reluctant to leave and “obviously had no fear of people.”
The hope is that after a week of no humans offering handouts, the bear would find more natural food sources.
It was hard to pinpoint the bear’s age, but Davis said it’s probably a yearling, and it could be an orphan cub, as officials had received another report of a bear being hit by a car near there a month or two ago. Whatever the situation, we humans cannot take over mama bear duties, for the reasons mentioned above — a fed bear is a dead bear.
If you have serious concerns about a bear in this situation, call the Parkway Headquarters (828-348-3400) or the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Wildlife Interaction Helpline (866-318-2401).
Davis said he did not hear about someone trying to hold the bear, but he did hear about people trying to pet it. As he’s been in the business for three decades, Davis says he wouldn’t put much past humans when it comes to these interactions.
As people don’t seem to be absorbing the obvious here, I asked Davis why it’s a bad idea to try to pet or hold our ursine neighbors.
“These are wild bears — even the small ones have teeth and claws, and they’re absolutely capable of hurting or injuring somebody,” Davis said. “We have had small bears that have killed dogs. And this bear did bluff charge some of our staff members.”
That’s a defense mechanism, the bear’s way of saying, “Back off,” Davis said.
“But the next step really would be for the bear to grab ahold or bite somebody or claw somebody,” Davis said. “If that would happen, unfortunately, that would probably be the end of that bear from our perspective.”
Look, we all get a little goofy in nature sometimes, especially with wildlife. The grandeur here and in our national parks and forests is mind-boggling, and seeing bears or elk or other wildlife is exciting.
I get excited whenever I see bears. I mean, who doesn’t?
But I don’t try to feed them, or, for the love of an intact face, try to hug them.
While Davis is not a psychologist, he does have a theory about why people lose their minds in these wildlife sighting situations.
“Again this bear is small, and to a lot of people it looks cute, and even though most people know better, they just seem to kind of part with common sense when they encounter an animal like that,” Davis said. “That social media photo becomes all-important, all-encompassing, and I think people just kind of lose their perspective for a short time.”
Some of it, Davis says, is just human nature, and a mindset of, “It won’t happen to me, I guess.”
Allow me to pause here to note that this attitude is far from limited to bear encounters. Out west, people do this with bison and elk.
In Cataloochee, I’ve also seen way too many people get too close to elk, which can also be dangerous. And I’ve stopped counting the number of times I’ve seen people climb to the top of very slippery waterfalls, despite signage that explicitly states people have died there from doing exactly that.
At least a half dozen times I’ve turned to my wife, my hiking partner, and said, “Let’s get out of here before that guy falls.” Sorry, but it’s usually men who do this, although a couple weeks ago we saw a male and a female climbing, off trail, to the top of a not-even-spectacular waterfall in Deep Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
There was no view to be had there, except potentially one of quickly approaching rocks at the bottom, as you tumble ass over teakettle toward your death.
“Let’s get out of here before one of them falls,” I said to my wife.
But back to bears. When we humans lose our common sense for a minute and feed or touch a bear, we’re not the ones who will pay the price for poor judgment.
“The bear is going to be, ultimately the one, unfortunately, to pay the price for our — for lack of a better word, our stupidity,” Davis said.
You’re not lacking words there, my friend.
Because, again, if you don’t know, once a bear becomes a nuisance or problematic, it’s going to be euthanized. Wildlife experts do not relocate bears, as that can be traumatic to the bear, result in the spread of disease or just be likely to fail, as bears will return to territory they’ve staked out.
We simply have to do better by our bear friends, as we are the ones moving into their habitat. And we have a lot of bears in these mountains — 6,000 to 8,000 in western North Carolina, wildlife experts say.
Davis said there are 80 to 90 bear-related incidents annually on the length of the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway. That can include vehicle collisions, bears on picnic tables, bears rummaging through picnic areas or campgrounds, and more.
These occur in all areas of the park, but the Asheville and Pisgah areas are traditionally the park’s busiest, so we get more incidents.
Encounters will continue to increase.
Just this year, I’ve seen a large bear near the Montford Park tennis courts (we were playing pickleball; the bear was not interested), in a UNC Asheville parking lot, crossing Rutledge Road in northern Henderson County, and one in my front yard.
That fella, probably a yearling, dropped an outsized, bird-seed-filled deuce in my yard, then skedaddled across the street and tore down part of a neighbor’s fence. A neighbor a couple of houses down took in their birdfeeders a day later.
Not all bears hibernate, so get ‘Bearwise’
The state launched a program called “Bearwise” five years ago, and I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with it, starting by perusing the website. The principles are pretty simple:
- Never feed or approach bears — This teaches bears to approach homes and people looking for more.
- Secure food, garbage, and recycling.
- Remove bird feeders when bears are active.
- Never leave pet food outdoors.
- Clean and store grills and smokers.
- Alert neighbors to bear activity.
By the way, despite the cold weather and shorter days, we’re still in fall, and this is the season when bears really try to load up on calories for the winter. So we’ll continue to see them roaming around in search of any food they can find.
As the Bearwise website states, “The combination of shorter days, longer nights and foraging bears also makes fall a prime time for people and bears to encounter each other out in the woods or on the roads.”
And here’s a fun fact about our black bears: “They don’t technically hibernate,” Davis said.
Many bears do go into a deep sleep torpor. But not all of them.
“The bears without cubs will certainly get out and wander around in winter from time to time,” Davis said. “Most of our bears on the parkway are probably in bed by around the end of December.”
Davis noted that the North Carolina Urban/Suburban Bear Study, conducted by North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, has found that some bears in the Asheville area are not going into the torpor at all, though, because they have year-round access to food sources, mostly our garbage and bird seed.
“The sows that were having cubs and sows with cubs were staying in bed, but some of the bears that didn’t have cubs — the males, certainly, the yearlings — were not necessarily hibernating,” Davis said. “Some of the cubs and the yearlings were emerging from the winter months weighing more than what they started out with, which is kind of unusual.”
In short, the winter dormancy is more a reaction to a lack of food than to the cold. Bears can withstand our cold temperatures.
The upshot is we’re very likely to see a lot of bears for many more weeks, and possibly even some over the winter. So please, get a grip on yourself, your friends, your family members.
Don’t let friends hug a bear. Or feed one. Or even approach one.
If you have the urge to hug a bear, just take a garden rake and vigorously drag it over your face and upper torso. It’ll give you the same result.
Without causing a bear to be euthanized.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.