Can bears and humans coexist?

In North Carolina, black bear populations have grown but so has urban sprawl. One five year study looks to see if black bears and humans can coexist and the results might surprise you.


In North Carolina, black bear populations have grown, but so has urban sprawl.

One 5-year study looks to see if black bears and humans can coexist, and the results might surprise you.

Here's the story.

They get used to us sometimes, where you may... I see some neighbors yelling to get them to leave the garbage alone or something, you know?

Mike Ruiz keeps a sharp eye and a video camera on the wildlife in his Asheville neighborhood.

And then the neighbor is, like, warning me, like, 'Mama in the yard over there,' and I'm thinking, 'Wait a minute.

Me, babies, mama.

This is not good.'

Yeah, so...

He's especially watchful for the big wildlife, the North American black bear.

I got a pretty good video of some when they were down near the front of the driveway, and it was nice.

Yeah, I will get in the car sometimes, so I'm not always, you know, unprotected.

So in the car, I feel safer, and, like, if I see a bear go up this way, I've gotten in the car, and I've driven because I figure out where they're going to come out up there, and then I'm waiting for them.

And then up there, I get some good footage, you know, when they cross the street.

Ruiz is the community recorder of bear sightings.

People alert him to bears.

He records video and then posts it to a neighborhood news website.

Some will be very, very scared and really be appreciative when I post a video of where they are, especially some that walk their dogs, and they don't want to encounter a bear because a dog can go crazy and start, like, barking and all this, and the bear might, you know, hurt the dog.

So there's some who really like to keep track of where they're going and what time of day.


And that raises the question, can bears and people coexist?

You know, we've never done a study on bears living in more human-developed areas, and we were seeing over the past 10 to 15 years that it appeared in certain places, bears were living in more developed areas, that they were tolerating the amount of human disturbance and development better than we expected.

The black bear is a North Carolina wildlife success story.

There were only about 1,500 black bears in the state in the 1970s, but thanks to research, changes in hunting regulations and the creation of bear sanctuaries, black bears made a comeback.

Now there's an estimated 17,000 to 20,000 black bears in the state.

About 7,000 black bears live in the western mountains.

The rest live in the coastal plain in the eastern half of the state where there are fewer people, and there is plenty of open farmland and forest.

So, you know, the human population is growing in North Carolina.

Humans are starting to live in places that are occupied by bears, and our bears have shown themselves to be very tolerant of humans and human disturbances, so really we're trying to see, how can we educate people to coexist with these bears, basically to be tolerant of these bears, as well as what can we do to make sure that we are managing the bears based off of science and the best knowledge possible?

The 5-year urban bear study focuses on Asheville and Buncombe County.

That's where the most human-bear interactions are reported.

The study involves trapping and tracking radio-collared bears.

You can see one of the bear collars used in the project in Ruiz's videos.

For the urban bear study, we try to collect the location when the bear is inside city limits every 5 minutes.

We're trying to get fine-scaled movements, again, to identify how those bears are moving through Asheville and taking advantage of those, you know, habitat corridors.

But once the bear is out of Asheville, we have it where we get a location every 1 to 2 hours.

It's a perfect opportunity to really look into human-bear interactions.

Researchers believe their findings will help scientists manage bear populations not only in North Carolina but around the country, and there are plenty of questions to answer.

How bears are using this really fascinating part of our state that's suburban and urban... What's their reproductive rate?

What's their survival, causes of mortality?

Is this population a source population, meaning they're growing bears in Asheville, and those Ashevilles are then, those bears in Asheville are dispersing to the surrounding area?

Or is Asheville a sink, meaning the bears are just coming in Asheville and staying?

How are they moving?

Are those bears, with all the artificial-food resources, the bird feeders, the garbage, are they having more cubs?

Are they bigger?

Are they healthier?

What's their timing of denning, and what are the characteristics of the den sites?

How about wildlife-type diseases?

Scientists have already made one major discovery -- bears and people coexist quite well.

In fact, bears can thrive in a major city.

Well, so, you know, black bear, I mean, it's a wild animal, and it should be treated as such, but it's not something that you have to fear.

It's something that you have to respect.

Justin McVey fields about 500 calls about bears every year as a biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

It turns out, wildlife management is people management.

The main thing to remember when you're living in bear country is just to keep those human-caused food sources put up.

Keep those trash cans secured.

Once you have bear activity on your property, make sure you don't have those bird feeders out.

And bears are very adaptable.

They're very smart, and they don't mind us nearly as much as we mind them, so they don't mind living in close proximity to us.

They don't mind denning in close proximity to us.

Wildlife is a part of North Carolina.

It's a part of our history.

It's a part of our culture.

It's a part of our landscape.

And it's important to have these animals in our ecosystem.

A lot of folks like to see the wildlife, and, you know, woodpeckers, you know, anything.

I...A lot of wildlife here, beautiful.