Life in bear country: Bear encounter sparks camping closure, bear canister requirement
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.”
Though the bear left the hikers alone, it carried off the backpack. When the hiker reported the incident two days later — the report did not specify whether the backpack did, in fact, contain food — the U.S. Forest Service decided that encounter was too close for comfort.
“We’re trying to break that habit so the bear doesn’t become used to people,” said Derek Ibarguen, district ranger for the Pisgah district of the Pisgah National Forest. “We want to protect both the bears and our visitors.”
Those protection measures will be twofold: temporary closure of camping at Graveyard Fields — a popular hiking area and jumping-off point to the Pisgah National Forest on the Blue Ridge Parkway between intersections with N.C. 215 and U.S. 276 — and a permanent requirement that campers store their food in bear canisters when exploring the Shining Rock Wilderness, Black Balsam, Sams Knob and Flat Laurel Creek areas. Camping without a bear canister could result in anything from a verbal warning to a $125 fine.
Bear canisters required
The new regulations weren’t a random decision, Ibarguen said. The Forest Service started tracking tallies of bear encounters in 2012, bringing in the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to analyze how to respond to different kinds of bear incidents.
They determined that if a bear came into close contact with a tent — which is what happened March 16 — the area should be closed to overnight camping. If the bear got food even though the person stored their equipment properly — something that’s been reported in the areas where bear canisters are now required — bear canisters should be used.
The canisters are sturdy plastic tubes that close securely so that bears, while able to smell the food inside, can’t get it out. That keeps them from associating campsites with treats.
They’re required in a number of parks out West, including areas of Yosemite, Grand Teton and Olympic national parks. Canister requirements are more rare in the Eastern U.S. but do exist. Between April and November, they’re required in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness Area in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. In the Southeast, some areas of the Appalachian Trail in North Georgia require them, and bear containers are provided in frontcountry camping in Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, located in Tennessee. Friends of the Smokies has provided food-hanging cables for nearly all backcountry sites in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“The bear canister thing is just a good idea in general,” McVey said. “We do have a large bear population and we have a lot of hikers and backpackers and that kind of thing, and it’s just a good precaution to take.”
Typically, backpackers are asked to hang any food or scented items from a tree so the bears can’t get to it. The problem with that, McVey said, is that not everybody does it and not everybody does it right. And in some places there just aren’t trees that work for bag hanging.
“The feedback we’ve gotten from people is ‘Thank you,’” Ibarguen said. “People’s ears perk up when we talk about bears.”
Adjustments for outfitters
It’s possible that not everyone will be happy about the regulations, however. Bear canisters aren’t that cheap, retailing for about $70 to $80. Especially in the early days of the requirement, people who are visiting Shining Rock for a few days of backcountry camping might be unpleasantly surprised by the extra cost to their trip.
For that reason, said Headwaters Outfitter owner David Whitmire, it’s possible the store might not only start selling bear canisters but also consider a rental program. Located on N.C. 215 just outside Rosman in Transylvania County, the store is directly on the way to the Shining Rock Wilderness and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“I think outfitters would definitely have to adapt to it,” Whitmire said. “I think it would be a service we’d definitely have to look at.”
A bigger deterrent than the cost of the canisters could be the extra weight, Whitmire said. Bear canisters are typically about 1 foot long and weigh about 3 pounds. Overall, though, he thinks the new regulation will be a good thing.
“Right now they’ve banned everyone out of Graveyard Fields at night, and that’s not going to be a good policy for long-term. I think this is a good way to manage that,” Whitmire said. “Anything that will make our users safer I would definitely approve.”
Safety for people and bears
The Forest Service expects to reopen camping at Graveyard Fields in a couple weeks, the idea being that the weeks of closures will give bears time to reform any bad food-finding habits they’ve acquired.
As to the more permanent food canister requirement, Ibarguen hopes campers will see it more as a protection than as a liability.
“I would like visitors to understand that their investment in the canister is an investment in their safety and the bear’s safety,” he said. “Bears continuing to successfully acquire food could lead to future overnight camping closures, and changing the bears’ habits protects both bears and visitors and ensures the area remains open.”
Not that bears are in the habit of mauling backcountry users. To the contrary, Ibarguen said, March’s instance of a bear entering a tent is the most serious encounter he’s heard of in his three-and-a-half years working in the Pisgah National Forest. The only incident of death by bear Whitmire could recall was a 2000 incident in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. On the flip side, a bear that had been raiding a Maggie Valley homeowner’s birdfeeder wound up dead last year when it charged the homeowner and met a shotgun bullet.
The canister requirement is there for both bear and human safety, Ibarguen said.
But for people who don’t want to acquire a canister, other areas of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests have similarly spectacular hikes without the canister requirement, though proper food storage is still a must everywhere.
“You gotta be responsible and you gotta be smart,” Whitmire said.
Bear boom expected this year
This spring is expected to be a big one for bears, with a “bumper crop” of cubs likely to roam the woods.
“I don’t know if we can say each bear is going to have three or four cubs, but each bear is going to have a lot more cubs,” said Justin McVey, wildlife biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
The reason? Tons of nuts in the fall. The bears had an easy time fattening up on the abundant acorns and hickory nuts peppering the forest floor, meaning the females overwintered with the energy reserves to produce more cubs.
The high nut production also meant that hunters harvested fewer bears, with numbers down about 50 percent. When there’s food everywhere, McVey explained, bears don’t have to move very far to find it.
“The hounds have to get on the scent of the bear,” he said. “If the bears aren’t traveling around as much, they’re not leaving as much scent around and dogs can’t find them as easily.”
Usually, female bears give birth to two or three cubs during February or March. It’s too early to say what the average numbers will look like this year, McVey said, but observations from the Urban/Suburban Bear Study in Asheville — a four-year study designed to learn more about how bears live in populated areas — have included a lot of bear moms with three or four cubs.
Upward-reaching bear numbers aren’t anything new, McVey said.
“Our bear population has been increasing by about 6 percent per year for the past number of years, and that’s a trend that we expect to continue because we haven’t really changed our bear regulations or harvest laws,” he said.
Currently, an estimated 10,000 bears live in the 23 western counties.
“When you live in Western North Carolina, you have to expect to see bears,” McVey said. “We are in bear country.”
Brushes with bears
Forest and wildlife managers have been thinking about requiring bear canisters in the Shining Rock Wilderness Area for a while, Pisgah District Ranger Derek Ibarguen said, because the bulk of bear encounters happen in that neck of the woods.
The U.S. Forest Service started tallying bear encounter reports in 2012, racking up the following numbers in the Shining Rock Wilderness, Black Balsam and Graveyard Fields areas:
2012 – 17 reports
2013 – 0
2014 – 22
2015 – 1
There is still plenty of time to go in 2015, with May expected to be the busiest time for bear encounters. That’s when bears are breeding and last year’s cubs are disbursing.
“There’s just a lot of bear movement,” said Justin McVey, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission wildlife biologist.
As for the big fat zero recorded in 2013? It’s a mystery, Ibarguen said.