With fall comes increased bear activity in Western North Carolina. Here's what to know

ASHEVILLE - With the arrival of fall, comes cooler temperatures, an influx of Halloween décor and more of Asheville's favorite residents: the black bear, which is ramping up its presence, experts say, as it prepares for denning in the winter. But wildlife biologist Johnny Wills with the Nantahala Ranger District said despite increased activity, early autumn is not a time of year where they see negative human-bear interactions around campgrounds, picnic areas, trails and elsewhere.

"When we have this type of issue, it is normally in the spring or early summer during time periods with sparse natural food sources. For example, human-bear interactions tend to be more frequent when serviceberry, blackberry, blueberry, and other high-calorie food sources are not available," Wills said.

"In the autumn when acorns become available (at least in years with a good acorn crop), bears become hyper-focused on this natural food source and spend most of their time consuming acorns."

Justin McVey, wildlife biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission, said while bear activity as a whole tends to increase in the fall, he doesn't anticipate much change in and around the city of Asheville itself, which sees constant bear activity because anthropogenic food sources − such as food found in dumpsters and trash cans − are also constant.

With a burgeoning bear population in Western North Carolina, a $30,000 infusion to the Asheville's bear-resistant trash can program means more residents can take preventative measures against their trash becoming a bear's next snack.
With a burgeoning bear population in Western North Carolina, a $30,000 infusion to the Asheville's bear-resistant trash can program means more residents can take preventative measures against their trash becoming a bear's next snack.

About 8,000 bears are estimated in Western North Carolina, with an additional 1,800 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, McVey said.

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He said bear populations have been increasing about 5%-6% a year, with the human population on the rise as well.

“You combine those two factors and you’re going to have more and more human and bear conflicts,” he said. Calls haven't fluctuated much this year, he said, but factors like Ring Video doorbells can make interactions seem more frequent.

According to McVey, Wildlife Commission database shows 291 calls reporting nuisance or conflicts with bears in Buncombe County this year, with 238 in the same time frame in 2021.

"Pretty similar in my eyes," McVey said.

"Most of our calls about complaints occur between May and August and drop off in September. You can look at trends in road mortalities to get a sense of when bears are “on the move,” and there are more mortalities in May and June and then again in October-November when bears are really starting to search for food."

Adrianne Rubiaco, spokesperson for the National Forests in North Carolina, said that typically bears are a solitary species and prefer to stay away from people, but they have noticed some bears becoming habituated to people and less easily deterred.

Though naturally afraid of humans, they lose this fear as they begin associating human scents with the reward of food.

Rubiaco advised people to store their food property and follow bear safety tips, many of which are assembled by BearWise, a national educational program developed by bear biologists and employed by the Wildlife Commission.

With fall now in full swing, a recent BearWise article said bears are foraging up to 20 hours a day in a race against the clock.

"Their goal: put on as much weight and insulating fat as possible before turning in for the winter," the article said.

With this caloric hunt underway, BearWise advises a number of precautions to reduce the temptation of human-provided food and "prevent problems around your home and help keep bears wild."

The Smokies’ bear population has grown from 600 in the 1990s to approximately 1,900 today. Over the same time period, the human population doubled in Sevier County, Tennessee, home to Gatlinburg — and park visitation soared to a record 14 million plus last year. To keep bears wild, maintain 50 yards’ distance and do not leave your food accessible to them.
The Smokies’ bear population has grown from 600 in the 1990s to approximately 1,900 today. Over the same time period, the human population doubled in Sevier County, Tennessee, home to Gatlinburg — and park visitation soared to a record 14 million plus last year. To keep bears wild, maintain 50 yards’ distance and do not leave your food accessible to them.

Tips include:

  • Don't leave barbecue and cookouts unattended. Clean up after your party.

  • Don't leave trash, empty cans and bottles or anything else with an odor on your porch.

  • Harvest fruits, nuts and garden produce. Pick up any fallen produce daily.

  • Honey, bee larva, chickens and other small livestock, eggs and feed all attract hungry bears. Install electric fencing and motion-detecting lights around chicken coops, beehives and livestock enclosures.

  • Resist the urge to put out your bird feeders at the first hint of fall; bears can smell birdseed from more than a mile away. A bird feeder that holds 7 pounds of nutritious seeds delivers 18,000 calories a bear can gobble down in minutes.

  • Shorter days and longer nights give bears more time to roam through neighborhoods looking for food. Use bear-resistant trash containers or keep trash inside a sturdy locked building until the morning of pick up.

  • Feed pets indoors. If you must feed outside, remove bowls as soon as your pet is finished eating and keep the surrounding area clean.

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For many Asheville residents, frequent bear sightings are a part of the city's charm.

Suzanne Hermann, media relations director with Darby Communications, whose office sits at the edge of Montford at the intersection of Magnolia Avenue and Broadway Street, says she sees bears often since working there, much more, even, than at her home in the more rural Fairview area.

"I get very excited every time I see them," she said.

Sometimes, they are ambling up Broadway. Others are sitting in the grassy knoll beside the office, rummaging through neighborhood trashcans or walking on the greenway toward UNCA campus.

"It’s one of the things that makes it so cool to live here, that we get to share the space with them and see them," Hermann said.

With fall underway, Hermann she knows to be more aware, more alert and make more noise when she's out by herself. As a whole, she said people in Asheville know to be respectful and give the bears space.

If walking, bear spray or a bell or signal horn are effective but whistling, calling out “Hey, bear!” or making other noises can work to let the bear know of one’s presence, too.

"I’m more vigilant, especially because I have young kids, when we’re out and about in the woods and stuff this time of year,” Hermann said, though she's "always hoping to see more."

"I grew up in Greensboro, we didn’t have bears walking around. To me, it’s still exotic and it’s exciting every time I see them, and I tell my friends that don’t live here that I see them all the time, and they just think it’s the craziest thing to get used to.”

Sarah Honosky is the city government reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. News Tips? Email shonosky@citizentimes.com or message on Twitter at @slhonosky. 

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Autumn bear activity increasing in WNC: What you should know