Asheville, a small city of 90,000 in the mountains of western North Carolina, is known for many things: stunning views, outdoor sports of all types, artists of every variety, almost unanimously lefty politics in a reddish state. It’s been named the "#1 Best in the U.S. Travel 2017 Destination" by Lonely Planet, the largest travel guide book publisher in the world. It’s also affectionately known as the beer capitol of the United States—boasting more breweries per capita than any other city. It’s a hippie mecca that exudes Southern charm.
Black bears have decided that Asheville is pretty cool, too. And unlike people in most cities, the residents not only don’t mind, many love it. And Friends of Animals couldn’t be happier. Mary Julian is a retired high school history and government teacher who calls Asheville home, and embodies everything wonderful about the Asheville community: intelligence, fierceness and animal-friendly.
With some frequency, like many residents here, she encounters bears while walking Ferdinand, her beloved lab. “My most recent encounter began with me mistaking the bear for a black dog,” she said. “I was texting on my iPhone and suddenly a yearling black bear was in my face, having encroached on my personal space. We both scared each other and stumbled back several feet to appraise the situation. The young bear decided that Ferdinand was more interesting than me; they sniffed each other, and then parted company.”
Julian added that, “Every year we see all sizes and shapes of bears in our yard and in the neighborhood. Our favorites are the momma bears with cubs. Three cubs make for a three-ring-circus— bouncing off trees, rocks, their mothers, and each other. Using any object in your yard as a baby toy, and as a friend once called them, ‘power raccoons.’
If they can't break it they will bend it. On these occasions you have to remember that a female bear is rightfully protective of her cubs, so it is always best to observe their antics from either indoors or from a safe distance.”
Even though omnivorous black bears can reach 500 pounds and sprint at 35 mph, they generally are shy and try to avoid humans. Mothers with cubs pose the most danger to humans, so it’s best to keep a safe distance and avoid startling them. Julian’s attitude echoes that of many Asheville residents—a live-and-let-live attitude that is unusual when it comes to wildlife living in close proximity to humans.
Julian says, “Wildlife is an integral part of making one's life complete. Our neighborhood is blessed with wildlife large and small: from birds to foxes, and recently, an increase in the number of bears. Being able to watch and observe such a rich variety of wildlife in close proximity to one's home enriches your life. Many neighborhoods in Asheville are open for the opportunity to interact with the outdoors and bears are a bonus.”
It’s estimated that 20,000 black bears live in the state of North Carolina, although it’s unknown how many live in and pass through the city of Asheville, although sightings and reports from residents suggest that there are quite a few. Biologists used to believe that bears and humans could not co-exist, but Asheville is modeling peaceful co-existence with wildlife. North Carolina, as a whole, is unsurprisingly not as progressive about black bears and wildlife in general— possessing, like most state governments, an attitude of human dominance and control.
For example, 3,000 black bears were killed by hunters in 2015 in the state—although not in Asheville, where hunting is illegal. Currently, a bear study—which is at the half-way point—is being conducted by North Carolina State University, to determine where bears live and travel, how many there are and what their habits are. Biologists believe that bears travel through the city to reach dense forest on its outskirts, including Asheville’s 22,000-acre watershed to the northeast and national forest to the southwest.
The Blue Ridge Parkway runs between those areas. Unfortunately, this study also entails capturing and placing monitors on the bears, so they can be tracked. This could lead to calls for more bear hunting in North Carolina, as wildlife biologists often play god—claiming to know how many of each animal has the right to exist and issuing state-sponsored hunts aimed at “curbing” populations.
Thankfully, Asheville—in myriad ways—remains decidedly independent on countless issues, which is good for bears and humans alike. When Julian is asked what other communities could learn from Asheville’s progressive attitude toward black bears, she offered sage advice: “They can learn tolerance. A bear is seeking food and safety. If communities give bears respect for their territory and give them space to be a wild bear, conflicts won't occur.”
Friends of Animals couldn’t agree more.
Some Tips for Co-Existing With Black Bears
Secure bags of trash inside cans stored in a garage, basement or other secure areas.
Place trash outside, as late as possible, on trash pick-up days -- not the night before. Keep all garbage sites clean.
If a bear is in the area, remove bird feeders and hummingbird feeders, even those advertised as “bear proof.”
Avoid “free-feeding” pets outdoors. Do not leave pet foods out overnight. If you must feed pets outdoors, make sure all food is consumed and empty bowls are removed.
Clean all food and grease from barbecue grill after each use. Bears are attracted to food odors and may investigate.
Sprinkling ammonia or other strong disinfectants on garbage can mask the odor of food.
Frighten the bear. Shouting, clapping, blasting a car horn or motion-sensitive lights may scare off a bear temporarily. If a black bear does aggressively make contact, fight back.
Leave the bear alone. Crowds of people can unnerve a bear, causing it to act unpredictably. The crowd should disperse and allow the bear to move on undisturbed.
Talk to your neighbors. Make sure your neighbors and community are aware of ways to prevent bear conflicts.