Tuesday, February 20, 2018 at the West Asheville library starting at 5:30 p.m.
Join Jennifer Strules, Project Biologist and Wildlife Biologist, for a summary presentation on the study’s objectives, early findings, and proactive strategies for successfully co-existing with Black bears. This study has been a collaboration between North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to better understand how bears are utilizing suburban spaces and to inform current and future bear management strategies.
Blue Ridge Naturalist Network Event Minutes February 20, 2018 DRAFT Submitted by Linda Martinson 3/5/18
Location and Date: BRNN presentation by Jennifer Strules on a five-year study of urban and suburban bears in a joint collaboration between N.C. State University and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. The event was held on February 20, 2018, from 5:30 to 7:00 pm at the West Asheville Library in Asheville, with their joint sponsorship, and was open to the public.
Program Leader: Peggy Clark
Attendance: There were 68 attendees, and BRNN Board members in attendance included Ken Czarnomski, Barbara Harrison, Charlotte Caplan, Penelope Reed, Peggy Clark, and Linda Martinson.
Event notes: Peggy welcomed everyone and introduced both the BRNN board members present and Randy Richardson, who is helping to coordinate the upcoming Bio-Blitz. She also thanked Barbara Harrison for her work as BRNN program director for the past three years, and then introduced Jennifer Strules, an NC State biologist and researcher for the Urban/Suburban Bear Study.
Jennifer began her presentation by asking how many of those of us present had seen a bear in their Asheville neighborhoods, and almost everyone raised their hands. The focus of the Urban/ Suburban Bear Study is on learning more about the growing population of black bears in the Asheville area using data collection from collars with GPS recording devices that are attached to bears captured within the city limits. Jennifer explained that, although there have been 20 other studies of bears conducted in the WNC area, this is the first study in the Southeast that focused on bears in urban/suburban areas. The study began in 2014 and continues to the present; it is projected to end this year although the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has a N.C. Black Bear Management Plan in place from 2012 -2022. The goals of the study are to learn more about bear behavior, especially in bear/human interactions, and to provide science-based information and recommendations for bear management throughout the region. The study is funded in part from the federal tax on firearms and ammunition that directs revenue to wildlife research, wild game projects, and hunter eduction.
Background: In the early 1900s, there were fewer than a thousand black bears left in NC because of severe habitat loss from widespread deforestation and unregulated hunting, harvesting and bear persecution. A few bears survived in the high elevation mountains of WNC and in the coastal plains of NC, but bears were virtually exterminated in the Piedmont area. In the early 1970s, efforts began at the State level to establish bear sanctuary systems (28 total) to protect the few remaining bears, especially female bears, which resulted in 800,000 acres being closed to hunting. Despite continued hunting and regulated and illegal harvesting, the statewide population of bears is now between 15,000 to 20,000. This significant rebound in bear population is a tribute, not only to the establishment of sanctuary areas and other protective measures, but also to bears’ high intelligence, resistance and adaptability. Revival of the bear population in North Carolina, however, also has required development of the goal of avoiding human/bear conflicts, especially in urban areas.
Asheville was chosen as the research study site in part because it had a high number of bears and good bear habitat both within and around the city; bear hunting was not permitted in the city limits; and people living in Asheville were fairly tolerant of bears. The main research strategy of the study is to attach GPS collars to several bears and track their movements within Asheville with the goal of developing strategies for optimal bear/human co-existence. It is not easy to capture bears — even though they are large animals, up to 800 pounds, they are intelligent, wary, and elusive. Also, the collars are heavy so can only be attached to about 34% of the captured bears. The collars are programmed to automatically unclasp and fall off bears after three years, or collars can be remotely unattached by the study biologists at any time. With the GPS collars, the movements of the bears can be tracked with updates every 15 minutes effectively mapping where and how far they travel; where and how long they den; their territorial, mating and reproductive patterns; their interactions with people; and even their survival rate and cause of death.
The six main research questions of the Urban/Suburban Bear Study are as follows, and Jennifer addressed each question with summary slides and photographs:
- How vulnerable are the identified bears to hunting outside the Asheville city limits?
- How do bear behavior characteristics change as they adapt to urban/suburban areas?
- Do these identified bears serve as a population source or sink?
- How do bears travel through developed areas?
- How do bears select dens in urban areas?
- Do bears have greater fecundity in urban/suburban areas?
The researchers began the study by responding to calls from Asheville residents regarding black bear sightings on their property. Approximately 34% of these calls resulted in bears being collared with all of them weighing over 100 pounds. They had very positive reactions from all homeowners they contacted and to date they have captured 240 and recaptured 160 bears, all on private land within the Asheville area. The number of bears currently with collars is 113. They also use tattoos, flagging, and micro-chipping to mark all captured bears so they can be identified as part of the study if they are found, for example, on National Forest land.
The reactions from Asheville residents toward both the ongoing research study and the close proximity of several bears have been, in general, quite positive, and the research results have been exceptionally useful, far exceeding their expectations. Although the study is not yet complete, research information compiled so far indicates that bears living in the Asheville are heavier, healthier and have better fitness than bears living in the rural areas out of Asheville. For example, the average weight of the male bears captured in Asheville is 572 pounds and that of females, 297 pounds, with both at the higher end of over all average weight for all bears recorded in the previous studies in the area. Male yearling bears have been captured that weigh more than 180 pounds each and female yearling bears that weigh more than 120 pounds each, compared to typical healthy yearling bears weighing between 45 to 80 pounds each.
Also, most of the 2-year old captured Asheville bears successfully became pregnant earlier than is typical and had larger and healthier litters. Not only is the breeding age lower and the reproduction rate higher, the survival estimates for the adult captured bears living in Asheville is also significantly higher. For example, the survival rate of the bears (usually young males) that leave Asheville falls from about 67% to 23% indicating that black bears that leave Asheville are more likely to die than to survive. More than half of these recorded mortalities for bears that leave Asheville are caused by being hit by vehicles and legal and illegal hunting accounting for the rest. Therefore, so far the data from the study indicate that, even though there is fairly high bear mortality, Asheville is a source for the bear population of the surrounding area because of the higher reproduction rate of the urban bears.
How do the bears behave that live in Asheville? The main reason the Asheville/Buncombe area was chosen as a study site is that bears are everywhere throughout the region with several human- bear interactions being reported every year. Once the GPS collars were attached to study bears, the map of the bears’ movements corresponds almost exactly to a map of Asheville and shows them crisscrossing everywhere within the area. Even with such close proximity to houses and people, injuries caused by bears are rare in Asheville just as they are throughout the WNC area, occurring only about once every other year. There have not been any reports of unprovoked attacks on people; usually they result from hunters trying to separate their dogs from bears or a
pet owner trying to rescue a dog that was attacking a bear. Even though they are large animals, bears are generally wary and elusive and not hostile or aggressive. One study finding is that Asheville residents are surprisingly tolerant of bears, perhaps because the bears mostly ignore humans. Jennifer described that people in most of the neighborhoods follow the recommendations of BearWise.org, a regional program to encourage community initiatives to keep bears wild. Recommendations include, for example, not approaching or feeding bears; to removing bird feeders or keeping them out of the reach of bears; and to keeping garbage cans stationary with their lids bolted shut.
Bears have high nutritional needs, requiring several pounds of food a day — they are largely vegetarian eaters and generally spend their time wandering around eating an omnivorous diet mainly consisting of plants, roots, twigs, buds, nuts, berries and other fruits, insects, worms and larvae. They are quite adaptable and opportunistic generally eating whatever is available including small mammals, honey from bee hives and human food and garbage. The results of the study to date indicate that bears are not always territorial and that individual bears vary significantly in their travel around Asheville. Some stay in one area almost exclusively while other collared bears travel widely for miles almost daily moving in and out of various areas.
Another adaptable quality of bears is that they essentially go dormant in the winter by ramping down their metabolism and entering a state of torpor or hibernation during which they don’t eat, drink, urinate, or defecate and lose 15 to 25% of their body weight. It was generally assumed that most bears enter dens during the winter, but Jennifer reported that the data from the Urban/ Suburban Bear research study indicates that the collared bears in the Asheville area don’t always den as they do in in other regions. Sometimes they just huddle together in a safe place and wait out the cold weather, although pregnant females will usually enter a den to hibernate, ideally a tall, hollow tree. Some of the collared bears have hibernated under porches, and the residents did not even realize they were there, or in a heap with other bears under trees. Some bears, especially females with cubs, spend the winter hunkered down in areas where there will likely not be anyone intruding all winter long for example, the small wooded tracts of land between the roads of the interstate freeway system.
The results of the Urban/Suburban Bear study indicate that there is still much to learn about black bears in general and specifically on living with bears in close proximity to humans. When Jennifer fielded questions at the end of her presentation, one person asked why the research biologists didn’t just capture Asheville’s bears and remove them from city to the “places that they belong” because they were a threat to the city’s residents. Jennifer explained that black bears are rarely a threat to people, who are much more likely to be injured by cars and other vehicles, guns and even dogs, and that they do “belong” where they are just as we do. She concluded that hopefully, the information from the study will provide both better understanding about the biology and behavior of the city’s bears and science-based strategies to help bears and humans successfully coexist by providing education and information for Asheville residents to help them live responsibly with bears.
Event Summary: The event was well attended and the presentation was excellent. There were technical problems with the projection of Jennifer’s well organized presentation, but she switched to a speaking mode only without a hitch.