The years since retirement have been anything but dull for Highlands residents Ed and Cindy Boos. From Ecuador to Kenya to destinations across North America, they’ve traveled the world — camera bags in hand.
The resulting catalogue of photos, primarily depicting wildlife but also featuring plenty of landscapes, includes everything from a young elephant feeding from its mother on an African Savannah to a Smokies black bear giving a wave as it rolls on the ground.
According to the National Phenology Network, Punxsutawny Phil had it all wrong when he emerged from his hole this month to declare six more weeks of winter — across the Southeastern U.S, the NPN’s data shows, spring 2017 is arriving three weeks earlier than the 1981-2010 average.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is looking for volunteers to help gather the data that will bring such generalizations down to a more local level. Phenology — the ways that plants and animals respond to seasonal changes — has been the subject of increasing interest as discussions about climate change have heated up, and the park is now four years into a volunteer program to collect data for the larger NPN project.
Did the fires hurt wildlife?
Prescribed burning is often used as a tool to benefit wildlife by regenerating their habitat, and in the case of the slowly creeping ground fires that accounted for most of the burned area, wildlife are usually able to get out of the way as flames approach.
When George Ellison first started writing nature columns for the Asheville Citizen-Times back in 1986, it was with the assumption that, while he enjoyed such things, reader interest was likely limited and the column would be a short-lived venture. So, when the editor called him in to talk, Ellison was surprised to get not a polite goodbye but promotion to permanent status. The resulting column, “Nature Journal,” is still published today.
From his vantage point on the banks of the Tuckasegee River, it’s not that hard for fly fishing guide Alex Bell to see that there’s something abnormal about the river’s flow this fall.
A pair of hikers camped near the Lower Falls in Graveyard Fields got a rude awakening March 16 when a bear entered the tent where the backpackers — and at least one of their packs — were spending the night.
“That right there is the number one ‘do not do’ when you’re camping is keeping anything with food inside your tent,” said Justin McVey, wildlife biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “The situation could have easily been alleviated had the camper hung the food.”
It make have taken 50 million years, give or take, but the small, armored animal known as the armadillo is finally making into the hills into Western North Carolina after its humble roots in South America eons ago — and it could be here to stay.
The battle has been an epic one, but Wolfgang Restaurant in Highlands might have finally gotten the best of a bear addicted to a nightly feast of its trash.
The bear had gotten into the unfortunate habit of visiting the restaurant’s trashcans, which were kept in an alley out back, in the wee hours of the morning.
“They would drag the garbage bag across Village Square and there would be piles of garbage and bear poop everywhere,” said Cynthia Strain.
Strain, an expert and leader of a bear education group, suggested ammonia.
“The nights they sprayed their garbage cans and bags with ammonia, they wouldn’t get into it. But the nights they forgot, the bears would get all over it,” Strain said.
That worked for a while, but the bears hankering for trash eventually got he better of them. They overcame their distaste for ammonia and began their nightly trash forays once more.
“They finally worked out a deal where Wolfgang gave the back door key for the town garbage men and would leave the garbage inside the backdoor,” Strain said. The deal was forged just last week, in a win-win deal for everyone, except perhaps the bears.
“The garbage men were happy to do it, because they wound up spending a great deal of time cleaning up the garbage from the street,” Strain said.
While getting into trash is one of the top bear problems faced by mountaintop islands of Highlands and Cashiers, bears have started to find their way into people’s homes.
“If they smell food they will come right in the screen door of the house,” Strain said.
“One fellow had a bear rip his screen door off three times trying to get to the bird seed on his porch,” Strain said.
Strain realized that conflicts between bears and people, particularly in the Highlands and Cashiers area, would only continue to rise — as bears became bolder and people more plentiful.
“Over the years we started hearing more and more and more problems with bears. People just didn’t know what to do. We thought someone needed to step in and educate the public,” Strain said. “There wasn’t anyone in a position to help these people with information and guidance”
So Strain helped start a nonprofit called B.E.A.R., which operates under the WNC Alliance, a regional environmental group and stands for Bear Education and Resources.
“They call and say they are having a lot of problems with bears in their community and want someone to come talk to them and tell them what to do and what not to do,” Strain said. “When bears do things like come in to your house and up on your deck, they are losing their natural fear of people. It is a lot easier to prevent problems than solve problems.”
Inadvertent carelessness, such as leaving out birdseed and dog food, is the biggest challenge Strain is trying to combat. But sadly, she has heard stories of people making and feeding the bears peanut butter sandwiches and coaxing them into yards.
Two groups in the Highlands-Cashiers area are working to teach residents there — and across WNC — how to better co-exist with black bears. Bear encounters are particularly frequent on the plateau area of southern Jackson and southeastern Macon counties where the two communities are situated.
Feeding bears is the biggest mistake a person can make, said Strain. Bears that lose their fear of humans to the point of showing aggression often get put down.
“It’s a bad year for bears, but that doesn’t mean you should feed them,” she said. “Because then you create serious problems that could end up causing the death of the bear. Once bears become accustomed to food, they associate humans with food — and lose their fear. And the more conditioned they get, the more aggressive they become.”
John Edwards, the founder of Mountain Wildlife Days and who lives in Sapphire Valley Resort, helps represent the interests of black bear enthusiasts. This is done with the help of the Bear Smart Initiative sponsored by the Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance, Wild South and other experts.
“There is pretty much a constant bear issue here,” Edwards said of Sapphire and that community. Like Strain, Edwards warned against feeding bears.
“That can create a problem in a hurry,” Edwards said. “If one person throws food off a deck to a wild animal, they come back.”
Strain has heard a few stories of people being swatted by bears.
A man in Highlands walked out of his house at night and nearly stumbled into a bear.
“He turned and ran, and it triggered an instinct in the bear to chase him. He was running up the stairs of his house and the bear swatted at his leg and scratched his leg before he got inside, so those things will happen,” Strain said.
In a similar story, a lady flipped on her outside lights to see why her dog was barking. She saw a bear cub in her yard and stepped outside for a closer look.
“What she didn’t realize is she just stepped out in between the cub and its mother. That’s something you never want to do,” Strain said. “The mother swatted at the woman and scratched her.”
Stories such as these have led to a fear by some to go out in their yard at night.
“I would not be afraid, but I know how to read a bear’s behavior. The only time to be afraid is if you startle a bear — if they don’t hear, smell or see you coming,” Strain said.
How to act during a bear encounter is another of the bear topics Strain and her group cover during their talks and programs. Chiefly, speak to the bear gently, don’t make eye contact and back away slowly. Don’t, under any circumstances, run.
“If they do charge you, it is a bluff charge,” Strain said.
Bears have to pack on serious pounds in the fall — three to four pounds a day, or about 25,000 calories — in order to make it through hibernation.
It’s especially critical for the females. They give birth while hibernating and sustain their cubs in their den until spring arrives.
Baby cubs are born in January weighing less than a pound. Essentially born premature, the cubs latch on to their mothers and nurse around the clock for the rest of winter. The mother converts her vast fat stores to milk, producing up to 50 pounds of milk despite taking in no food or calories herself. Cubs weigh eight pounds by the time they emerge from the den in April.
A mother bear calibrates the number of cubs she has based on how well she can nourish them. While bears mate in June, development of the embryo is delayed until fall. A bundle of fertilized eggs simply sits in the mother’s uterus, waiting to see how much weight she’ll gain during the pre-hibernation feeding frenzy. When — and if — she hits the target weight gain, the bundle of eggs pops open and implants in the uterus.
Last year was a great year for acorns, bear’s chief food source, resulting in more cubs than normal. The large number of cubs born in spring has made matters even worse during the acorn and food shortage this fall.
Steve Hewitt of the Villages of Plott Creek in Haywood County already has a pretty good idea about the concept of live and let live when it comes to bears.
There have been a number of bear sightings in his community, and one very close sighting indeed for he and his wife. About two weeks ago, at about 4 or 5 p.m., his wife thought she saw the couple’s black dog walking around outside the house.
It wasn’t — it was a bear and her cubs, “and they weren’t concerned” at all about human interest in their movements, Hewitt said.
The couple doesn’t keep bird feeders in the yard, though a neighbor had bird feeders torn down by bears. Hewitt also isn’t terribly worried about his dog tangling with a bear.
“He’s not a real courageous dog,” he explained. Hewitt believes people just need to live with the reality of bears, and leave them alone to go about their bear business.
Along with many other subdivisions and residential areas in Western North Carolina, the Villages of Plott Creek has sent out warnings to residents about the increase in bear activity.
Last week, in a newsletter, it was noted: “There have been several black bear sightings within and around the Villages of Plott Creek in the past four months. We are sending this notice to inform all residents to use caution with your children, pets, bird feeders and other food items in yards, walking and driving in the Villages. To date, none of the sightings have shown aggression other than damaging bird feeders and searching for natural food in yards.”
Bear sightings and bear visits are also taking place, of course, in other communities. Ray Daniel, who lives in the Cashiers community on Breedlove Road with his wife, Janet, has replaced three window screens torn out by bears.
The bears have actually made their way into the couple’s house on at least two occasions. Three or four weeks ago, the Daniels awoke to discover a bear had ripped through a screen and gotten in the kitchen — forensic proof, in the form of a perfect imprint of a bear paw, was discovered on a stainless-steel kitchen appliance.
The bear apparently ate chocolate chips, crackers and cookies, plus peaches and bananas.
“It didn’t like the oatmeal — the bear left that,” Daniel said, adding that peach pits and banana peels were left on the porch. Not long after that particular break-in, a bear got into the couple’s basement where trashcans were stored. Trash was strewn over the yard.
A helpful friend told the couple that they understood bears dislike the smell of Clorox. And, in fact, after Daniel scrubbed out the trashcans with the cleaner, the bears haven’t been back. But they’ve been seen around the community by neighbors, leaving the Daniels to keep a wary eye out for their unwelcome breakfast guests.
A bad year for acorns in the higher elevations, coupled with a poor berry crop region wide, has resulted in an influx of black bears into areas where the majority of mountain residents live: the cities, towns and mountainside developments of Western North Carolina.
Hungry bears are looking for acorns, moving into lower elevations in their hunt for food before hibernating for the winter. This has bear and human encounters in WNC tracking on a record pace this year.
“This year is an anomaly because of the acorn crop. There almost none (high) in the mountains,” said biologist Mike Carraway of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “The bears are looking for food.”
As hungry bears descend from the highlands, motorists are hitting and killing bears on the highway more than ever, particularly in such traditional bear habitat as the Pigeon River Gorge where Interstate 40 cuts through national forest lands.
The Wildlife Resources Commission reports cars have hit and killed more than a dozen black bears in WNC in the last couple of weeks alone. In all 12 months of last year, 10 bears were killed after being struck by motorists.
Additionally, phone calls about “nuisance” bears to North Carolina’s wildlife offices are numbering in the hundreds, well above what’s usually received, Carraway said. The state has received 300 calls so far this year, with the previous high for an entire year standing at about 400, he said.
SEE ALSO: Close encounters of the bear kind
The state does not capture and remove bears anymore: there’s simply nowhere to put them. Additionally, “we can’t catch hundreds of bears,” Carraway said.
The bottom-line on the issue, at least according to the state biologist and the region’s other bear experts? We’ve got to learn how to live with black bears. And to not feed them, to put up bird food and dog food as needed, to slow down and watch out for bears on the highway, and do those other easy, sensible things that will allow bears and humans to peacefully coexist.
The sheer numbers of bears now in the mountains are compounding the problem. Conservation efforts to help black bears in WNC thrive have proven successful, which is terrific, except that right now all of them are converging into the lower elevations in a desperate hunt for food.
“There’s a lot of mobility in and out of the park,” said Bob Miller of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “It’s the fall shuffle. But, normally this time of year, there would have been a good acorn crop (in the Smokies) they could have camped out on. They are headed to apple orchards, and so on.”
There have been the same issues, an increase in human and bear encounters, in east Tennessee, Miller said. Camper and bear encounters are down in the Smokies, because the bears have moved on — two backcountry campsites were closed because of bear activity, but park officials probably will reopen those soon, Miller said.
Plus, mother bears responded to a great acorn crop last year by having more cubs than normal this spring. Which is likely why so many local newspapers in recent days are running reader-donated photographs of a mother bears and their young — the mothers are trying to find food to save the cubs from starvation.