Close encounters

Published 10:00 pm Friday, July 28, 2017

Beginning with Native Americans, residents of and visitors to what are now Polk, Spartanburg and Greenville counties, have dealt with — or even benefitted from — the presence of black bears.

These days, bear/human encounters can range from crop damage and ruined bird feeders, to rare injuries to humans, a bear trophy or a fresh hide and meat for hunters.

Information from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission notes that the black bear is the state’s largest wild land animal, and is identified by its glossy coat which is usually black, but occasionally “cinnamon” or another shade.

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Regardless of color, they should be easy to identify by their large size, and because they look, like, well, a bear.

Typical North Carolina adult black bears are about 5-6 feet long and about 2-3 feet tall when on all fours, and are exceptionally powerful. Adult females (sows) weigh from about 100-300 pounds, while adult males (boars) weigh between 200 and 500 pounds. Larger individuals occur, but are exceptional. Grizzly bears, which live in the West, the Canadian Rockies and Alaska, are larger and more aggressive.

Many humans are thrilled to see bears at some comfortable distance, or, under some circumstances, even closer. Seeing a wild black bear can be a once-in-a-lifetime event, worth more in education than many pages of text. Rising human populations have helped fuel increased bear/human interactions.

People often ask, “What should I do if I see a bear?”

Wildlife Commission personnel say to try to remain calm. Bears are usually wary of people unless humans feed or provoke them. Never feed, approach, surround or corner the bear. If it changes its natural behavior because of your presence, you are too close. Back away slowly, making lots of noise.

My own best-remembered sighting of an adult bear occurred in November 2013, while I was hunting deer on wooded private property in Polk County. Late in the afternoon, something crunched through the dry leaf cover, sounding much like a human. I knew it wasn’t, but couldn’t see the animal, as it was behind a screen of young hemlock trees.

When it emerged, it proved to be a large (probably male) black bear, with long, black, glossy fur, and puffed out jowls, rather than the sleek muzzle of a younger bear. It was only about 30-35 yards distant, and a bit downhill from me. When it drew dead even with me, it turned toward me and stared, seemingly full of curiosity. The air movement at that time of day probably carried my scent to it.

Raising a cupped hand (the one not holding my rifle) to my mouth, I said “Boo,” not loudly. The result was comical. The bear turned and ran a few steps in the opposite direction. Then it stopped and stared back, eventually walking slowly and deliberately away, up and over a small hill, and out of the story.

In North Carolina, most black bears live in the mountain and coastal regions, but they occasionally wander into the Piedmont region.

Typically woodland dwellers, black bears will sometimes wander into residential areas or even into towns searching for food, provoking lots of stories, as happened last weekend in Landrum. Agency personnel note that if left alone and not fed, these bears will eventually leave the area.

While black bears are generally non-aggressive toward humans, and North Carolina has never recorded an unprovoked bear attack, Wildlife Commission personnel caution that frequently fed bears might become dependent on human foods, which might lead to increased interaction with people. Frequent human-bear contact can cause bears to become more bold and visible around humans.

To prevent problems with bears, do not unintentionally (or intentionally) feed them. Secure bags of trash inside cans stored in a garage, basement or other secure area. 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.

One night a wandering bear made off with a neighbor’s bag of birdseed, and broke off two seed feeders from our porch. The bashed-up feeders lay about 30 feet from where they were hung. Feed the birds during the day, but bring the feeders in at night. And, pay attention to yours and the neighbor’s dogs. If they bark furiously at night, it might be at a bear.

Agency personnel also advise to clean all food and grease from barbecue grills after each use as bears are attracted to food odors and may investigate.

If you already have a problem with a bear, try repellents, but don’t rely on them. No repellents are registered for use on bears. 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.

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.

Install electric fencing. It protects beehives, dumpsters, gardens, compost piles, or other potential food sources.

Talk to your neighbors. Make sure your neighbors and community are aware of ways to prevent bear conflicts.

Justin McVey, a North Carolina Wildlife Resources wildlife biologist, noted that 99 percent of complaints about bears can be resolved by keeping bird feeders and refuse away from the animals.

“We live in bear country,” McVey noted. “We’re going to have bears. He added that black bears “are not looking to attack us, or eat our children. They’re just looking for an easy meal.”

N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission personnel can be reached at 919-707-4011 or visit or for more information.