The measures are the only backcountry camping restrictions in recent memory in the Pisgah National Forest due to aggressive bear activity.
Since late September, about half a dozen incidents involving a black bear, usually in the pursuit of campers’ food, have been reported to park rangers.
“Bears start to associate food with humans — and then they’re not afraid,” said Pisgah District Ranger Derek Ibarguen.
All the encounters occurred in the evening or at night. Day hiking and other activities are not prohibited.
Although the closure came at the height of the fall outdoor recreation season and during a peak time for tourism, Ibarguen said he’s not taking any chances with the increasingly brash bear behavior.
There’s no permit system for backpacking and camping in the Shining Rock or Graveyard Fields area. Officials are attempting to disseminate information through the media to anyone who might be planning an overnight trip there.
Signs announcing the overnight camping ban are also posted at parking lots and trail heads, however. Anyone violating the ban can be issued a citation.
There is speculation by park officials that it may be just one bear. No timeline has been set for reopening the areas to backpackers.
“It’s impossible to answer how long the closure will remain in place,” Ibarguen said. “If we don’t get more reports, we will consider lifting it. But at this point, we are making no commitment of when that will be.”
Ibarguen said he hopes that by prohibiting camping the bears, will be deprived of the easily accessible human food and change their behavior. The U.S. Forest Service currently has no plans to trap or kill the bears going after campers’ food.
So far, no one has been hurt during the incidents, but Ibarguen said he wants to keep it that way.
Although the district doesn’t have statistics for camping use in the targeted area, Ibarguen said on most weekends during October, the trailhead parking lots fill up with cars.
The other hope is that by closing the popular camping areas to overnight stays, attention will be brought to food storage practices of campers. If a bear steals a food bag from a campsite and nothing bad happens to that bear, it receives what biologists call a “food reward.”
The bear is then more likely to repeat its same behavior. Depriving the bear of that food — a responsibility that largely falls on the shoulders of humans — can help mitigate that behavior.
“The intent is to educate people on how to protect themselves and store their food,” Ibarguen said. “A last resort is to do something to remove the bear from the area.”
Black bear season
Another possible outcome is that the bear hunting seasons will take care of the problem. Bear hunting began Oct. 15 and will run until Nov. 17. Another three-week season begins in December.
Despite some of the incidents being more than several miles apart, it could indeed be one bear causing the problems in the Pisgah National Forest, according to Mike Carraway, a wildlife biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Commission.
If it is one bear, depriving it of human food at this point may help, he said. But it has had so many encounters that by now it may be too late to retrain it.
“There’s no guarantee that this bear will change its behavior,” he said. “The alternative is that the bear gets killed during the hunting season. That would be the best solution.”
Last year, more than 1,000 bears were killed during hunting season in Western North Carolina. But the number of bears hunted in the recent seasons still hasn’t kept up with bear population growth in the region during the last 20 years.
Between 5,000 and 6,000 bears are estimated to live in the mountains of WNC, a number that has been steadily on the rise during the last three decades.
Carraway said contrary to intuition, the more development that takes place in the mountains, the more the bear population increases. Developments can create pseudo-sanctuaries for bears, where trash and human food is more abundant yet hunting is prohibited.
A regional dilemma
Although the incidents in the Pisgah Forest raised concerns because of their frequency and manner, bear encounters in the Appalachians are no new occurrence.
Last year in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a year when the foods bears traditionally rely on as they head into winter hibernation were scarce, nearly 500 black bear incidents and sightings were reported — the highest during the last 10 years in the Park. The lowest reported number was 112.
Park Supervisory Wildlife Biologist Bill Stiver said many of those incidents were minor. Bear sightings in areas frequented by people, such as a picnic area or even along the roadside, are included in the number.
Some of the reports made in the Pisgah Forest include repeated visits by a bear to the same campsite throughout the night without fear of humans.
“That’s a learned behavior over time.” Stiver said. “When bears first enter a developed area, they’re typically afraid. But if you don’t do anything, eventually they’ll climb up on your picnic table and be there during breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
He said at the park, with its nine million visitors per year, officials have to take a proactive approach. If a bear begins to frequent an area, rangers will tranquilize the animal, tag it and release it in the same area so the bear will associate humans with a negative experience.
However, in more remote areas, dealing with a problem bear can be more difficult. That makes prevention one of the best methods for keeping problems at bay. In other words, don’t let bears get that first taste of human food.
Several of the incidents in the Pisgah National Forest involved a bear taking down the food bag of campers. Campers generally string their food up in a tree to keep bears and other animals from getting it. It must be done correctly and is not always bear proof.
Wildlife experts recommend the food be hung more than 10 feet high and at least three feet from the trunk. Another option is to string the food between two trees.
When camping, the food storage site, cooking area and tent should all be at least 100 feet from one another.
Yet, keen bears have proven adept at accessing even the best placed food bags.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a wire cable and pulley system for hanging food at backcountry campsites but to install such a system is costly. The rigs in the park were mostly paid for by the Friends of the Smokies over many years.
In the Smokies, camping is only allowed in designated areas. In the Shining Rock and Graveyard Fields areas of the Pisgah National Forest area, camping is allowed anywhere, though some sites many not have ideal trees with the right kind of limbs to hoist food out of reach.
Ibarguen said another backcountry option is a bear-proof food canister, and park rangers may start recommending them when the closed areas are reopened for camping.
At this point, it’s hard to say where the blame falls for the camping closure. In at least one case, campers had left their campsite for a brief time without stringing their food up first.
But to put all the blame on campers may be to negate the intelligence of the black bear.
“It could be a combination of the skill of bear and people not hanging their food correctly,” Ibarguen said. “Potentially, this is the same bear, and he knows how to go find food from campers.”
Bear reports from Pisgah Forest
Oct 15, nighttime; Graveyard Fields — Camper had a bear-proof food bag in tree. Bear climbed the tree and tore open the bag and ate the food. The bear came back five times during the night and in one instance made contact with tent.
Oct. 6, nighttime; Shining Rock Wilderness — Bear entered camp, while campers were in their tent, and climbed the tree and took their food. The bear later left but returned and disturbed a camper’s pack. The campers tried to scare bear away, but it would not leave. The bear was not frightened of humans. Later, the couple returned to their campsite and found pack torn and tent shredded. They were uneasy with the boldness of the bear.
Oct. 6, evening; Shining Rock Wilderness — Bear came and chewed up cans and camping equipment. The bear was after the food. The campers were not there at the time. Afterward, the campers came back to camp and settled down, and the bear returned. The campers had to make significant noise to get bear to go away.
Oct. 6, evening; Shining Rock Wilderness — The bear entered the campsite at suppertime and grabbed the campers’ food bag. The bear came back two more times.
Incident reported on Oct. 2, Graveyard Fields — Bear took the food bag down and dragged it into the woods.
Incident reported on Sept. 29; Black Balsam — Bear managed to climb a tree and broke the rope the food bag was hanging on.
Sept. 22, evening; Shining Rock Wilderness – Bear approached the campsite. Campers made noise with pots and pans, but the bear did not seem intimidated. Campers were getting their food out and getting ready for dinner when the bear had approached.
Sept. 1; Black Balsam — Campers’ hung food bag was snatched away.