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As secluded habitats disappear, the generally non-aggressive bears are moving into more interaction with humans.
In southeast tennessee, black bears are venturing out of the Appalachians and westward toward populated cities and towns. In Virginia, they now live in 92 of the state’s 95 counties. And in western North Carolina, they are moving away from their longtime, secluded habitats and into suburban back yards.
Once rarely seen by humans, and usually only in the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Park, black bears are becoming more prevalent in or near residential areas across the Southeast.
“They’re adapting to more populated areas, and they’re finally reaching a population to where they’re expanding from the areas where they were hidden for a long time,” says Larry Beane, an interpretive park ranger at Little River Canyon Preserve near Fort Payne, Ala., who grew up near North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest.
“The more [people] logged there and the more they moved people in there, and the more people passed through, hiking, camping, running their four-wheelers and motorcycles, the more those bears said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna go find somewhere else,’” says Beane of the bears’ steady departure from his old stomping grounds in North Carolina.
Although the mammals are becoming increasingly common at Little River Canyon Preserve – picnickers have spotted them hovering nearby, and one amateur photographer captured a mama bear and three cubs crossing a field – Beane admits he has never seen one there in his 20 years on the job. “The bears are still pretty spooked around people,” he says. “Of course, a scared animal can be a problem too, but they’re more interested in getting away most of the time.”
The estimated 25 or 30 black bears that now roam the Little River preserve and surrounding neighborhoods are part of a statewide study conducted by Auburn University to determine just how many there are, and where. In November, researchers began tagging the animals and outfitting some with GPS collars.
The main reason bears are venturing into the suburbs is simple, says Beane: dinner. “The biggest thing is: Don’t leave food out for them,” he says. “They’ll pass through if you don’t have anything attractive for them.”
In the spring, the bears emerge from their dens, give birth and start searching for something to eat – at the same time more people are heading outdoors. Unlike grizzlies, black bears are generally not aggressive but can turn confrontational if they feel threatened or cornered into defending their babies. Beane advises campers to store food in closed containers and hang them high between two trees. He also warns hikers and curious nature lovers to use common sense.
“Don’t turn your back to take a selfie with a bear close behind you, especially if it’s looking at you,” he says. Keep your distance and don’t make eye contact with it, either, even through a camera lens, because staring may be interpreted as a challenge.
While mystery and fear still surround many suburban bear sightings, some people who live near the Little River preserve hope the bears stay. “They’re proud that this area is a home for an animal that, in many places, has been hunted out,” says Beane. “There are a few [local residents] who are hoping that bear sightings become as regular as in the Great Smokies.”