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This Bears Mentioning…

a bear that is standing in the grass

by Randy Sarton, Ecotour Guide for Asheville Hiking Tours

Usually it only takes a very short while into one of my hikes for Asheville Hiking Tours before a guest poses the question, “Will we see a bear?”  This is not surprising given that black bears sit at the top of the list of charismatic megafauna here in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Research reveals that N.C. is home to over 15,000 black bears, with a high percentage of those here in the mountainous western part of the state.  And their population is rising.  With the popularity of the Asheville area exploding and with more people moving into the area, we continue to infringe on this mammal’s territories.  It stands to reason that more bear-human interactions will occur.

My very first bear encounter is still clearly etched in my memory.  I was hiking in the woods in my community, taking in the incredible diversity of tree and shrub species.  I took the proverbial “bend in the trail” and there it was – a jet black, seemingly gargantuan beast sitting in the center of the path staring at me!  Are you familiar with that list of “what to do in a bear encounter”? (More on that in a bit.)   I had read it numerous times and had its contents burned into my brain.  Upon seeing this creature ahead of me, the list immediately left my mind. So I uttered a soft and rather pathetic- sounding “ooh”!  I managed to remember NOT to run so as not to set off a chase impulse in the animal.  I slowly backed away and walked the mile home BACKWARDS with my head on a swivel.

a bear that is standing in the grass

A young black bear cub and mother

In the areas surrounding the town of Asheville, such as Black Mountain where I live, many residents know how to live peacefully with these beautiful creatures.  You do not set your garbage out too early on pick up day.  You do not leave food outside or in an open car.  You keep your portable bbq grills clean and put away inside when not is use. Speaking of grills…

One stunningly perfect June evening several years ago, I stood transfixed on my porch, staring at the juicy Italian sausages slowly charring on the grill.  The juices dripping down onto the coals created a smoky pungency that made my stomach growl. I removed the sausages when done and shut down the grill  I figured we could eat our meal while the coals extinguished and cooled and then I could safely return the kettle grill to the garage.  No sooner had I entered the house that we heard a loud metallic crash outside.  As we approached the deck, we spotted a smallish bear cub scampering off, with ashes and charcoal spread about the stone patio.  It slowly dawned on me that while I had been roasting our dinner, I was being watched.  This young bear had been most likely off in the shrubbery probably only a very short distance away the whole time. And no doubt, his stomach had been grumbling just as mine had.

The following evening, when a similar incident occurred at a neighbor’s yard, this bear officially received the moniker “BBQ the Bear”.  And we continued to see him occasionally for the rest of the summer.

a brown bear walking across a grass covered field

Standing black bear

Most of the neighbors understood that we shouldn’t feed this bear (and any others lurking about).  The number of bird feeders in the neighborhood was dramatically reduced; those that remained were placed with utmost care.  And we knew of course not to approach or do anything that could cause the bear to get more comfortable around humans.

Black bears are naturally shy and wary creatures.  Because of their reclusiveness, bear attacks are quite uncommon.  But if you encounter one, it’s best to just quietly walk away and leave the area.  Do not run.  IF a bear approaches you, it is recommended that you make yourself look as large as you can, make noises, and keep backing away. In the most dire of circumstances, if one were to attack you, fight back with anything you have.

We knew to take these precautions because of the BearWise Program.  It is sponsored by the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission.  Interested communities can apply to BearWise for certification.  The program is designed to educate people to live responsibly with black bears.  It includes:

  • identifying and securing all potential food and attractants such as bird feeders, pet food, and garbage.
  • educating on how to prevent and respond to human-bear encounters.
  • establishing protocols for how and when to notify neighbors and governmental agencies to bear activity.
  • empowering residents, ultimately, to be part of the solution to the issue of wildlife encounters.
a brown bear sitting on top of a grass covered field

Huge black bear sitting on the grass with its tongue out at a home near Asheville, North Carolina.

Even now, years later, when we spot a bear in the area, someone always says, “Do you suppose that could be BBQ Bear, all grown up?”  And although we had named the bear, he did not become like a mascot.  It just seemed more that the community had taken on a sense of pride – that BBQ included us in his territory, that our neighborhood was enhanced by his presence, and that we could live together peacefully and without incident.

So, maybe you have been wondering about how I answer that question posed earlier –  “Will we see a bear today on this tour?”  I normally say that that possibility is not high. After all, what are the chances that we will be in the exact right spot at the exact right time?  Could it happen and does it happen?  Of course.  However, at Asheville Hiking Tours, we focus more on the habitat of bears, identifying bear signs, and promoting safety while in bear territory.  A bear sighting would be a thrilling, momentous occasion. Although it’s likely that they see us much more often than we see them.

Yet our tour guides will continue to lead you safely into the woods.   We will keep hiking, ready to encounter whatever it is around that next bend in the trail.

a brown bear sitting in the grass

Baby black bear playing in the tree

Natural Notes is Asheville Hiking Tours’ blog about nature, history and travel in the Appalachians. Asheville Hiking Tours offers day hikes, waterfall tours, and firefly tours, guided by naturalists, in the mountains around Asheville, NC. For more info visit www.AshevilleHikingTours.com.

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