According to Helton, a noise outside woke Jim Cooper up at about 2:30 a.m. Monday, June 2. He got out of bed and watched a startled black bear jump off his porch. He went back to bed but was woken up again, half an hour later, by the same noise. This time, the bear was lying under a porch swing that hangs just 5 feet from his bedroom window. Cooper went outside, and the bear jumped over the railing and left.
“When it was breaking daylight, he hears another noise. He grabs his 12-gauge and loads two rounds of buckshot in it, and he walks out on his porch,” Helton said.
Cooper walked down the porch steps, Helton said, which end just about 12 yards from Jonathan Creek.
“He hears all this screaming and this individual had never heard cubs scream before, so he didn’t know what was going on,” Helton said.
Cooper thought the noise was coming from the bear killing an otter in the creek, perhaps, and he went down to investigate. But instead of the easy job he’d had of scaring the bear away during the night, he was met with a full-grown female black bear, charging him head-on. So, he raised the gun and shot the bear, which then died in his front yard.
Unfortunately, Cooper soon discovered, the noise hadn’t come from an otter. The screams had come from the bear’s three cubs.
Around 9 a.m., Helton got the call and drove to Cooper’s home to investigate the incident — and to try and catch the cubs. WRC officials caught two of the three, which are now staying in a rehabilitation facility in Caswell County, but the third eluded capture.
“We feel like that same cub got hit there [by a vehicle] at Soco Gap,” Helton said.
No charges will be pressed, Helton said, because Cooper fired the shot in self-defense. Legally, landowners have a right to enjoy their property as they see fit, so if an animal such as a bear is destroying property or threatening the person’s safety, the person has the right to shoot it.
“Five-thirty in the morning, a big black blob is coming at you, you have a shotgun — you’re going to do what you can to protect yourself,” Helton said.
Though Cooper could have avoided the encounter by staying inside, Helton said, “A landowner has a right to do what he wants to on his property, and the bear should not keep a landowner captive in his house.”
This wasn’t the first time Cooper had had issues with bears. He’d called the WRC last year, complaining that bears were tearing down his bird feeder. Cooper and his wife come up from Florida every year and enjoy watching the birds gather at the feeder in their yard. However, birds aren’t the only animals that enjoy a taste of suet now and then.
“Those bears were there for the birdfeeders,” Helton said. “This guy had suet blocks up that smelled like peanut butter, and had he taken them in that night, it would have been fine.”
The incident is just another installment in an endless series of episodes in what happens when human and wildlife worlds collide. In 1980, an estimated 5,000 bears lived in the state. Now, that number sits at about 15,000, and it’s far from stagnant. North Carolina bear populations are growing at an annual rate of about 6 percent. They’re rebounding from decades of overhunting and also, perhaps, responding to the more available — albeit illicit — food supplies that accompany human communities.
“When bears have a good steady food source, they can respond by having more than two or three cubs, and now we’re seeing three, four and even five cubs being born,” said Justin McVey, WRC district wildlife biologist.
Of course, that cause-and-effect relationship is just speculation, McVey cautioned, but what is not speculation is the steep increase in bear nuisance complaints his office has seen over the past 20 years or so.
“We see tons of people having bear problems — or perceived bear problems,” McVey said.
In 2013, McVey’s office handled a record number of calls, more than 450, compared to just under 150 in 1997. In 1998, the office handled only 50 calls, but the volume, on average, has increased every year since, dipping and spiking based on mast production, the name for nuts such as acorns and hickory.
Few of those calls ever involve situations that escalate to a level in which a bear dies. In Buncombe County last year, only about four bears got shot that way, Helton said, “and I’m not sure that we had one last year in Haywood.”
Getting along with the neighbors
Though individual bears, like individual people, can be naturally aggressive, most black bears are more placid types that are driven mainly by a desire to find food and to protect their young. By understanding those drives and taking the precautions necessary to be a good neighbor, McVey said, most situations like the one in Maggie Valley can be avoided.
“Potentially all of these negative bear interactions could be avoided if we just removed our food sources,” McVey said. “When people call in, honestly they just don’t know any better. They get really excited about having a bear so close to their house, and I just turn on that broken record speech.”
Which is: secure trash, bring in dog food, empty bird feeders … basically, remove anything from your yard that a bear could interpret as a free buffet. Especially in the spring and summer, when bears are scrounging everywhere for food. By the time fall rolls around, mast foods come in, and the bears feast on those.
The main message, McVey said, is to be a good neighbor.
“When you put your house on the side of the mountain in great bear habitat, you’re going to have interaction,” he said.
The law does allow people to fire a bullet to protect themselves and their property, but it’s always important to take precautions to keep the conflict from getting that far.
“Unfortunately, bears can’t read those ‘No Trespassing’ signs,” McVey said. “While you do have the legal right to shoot a bear if it’s threatening your safety, if you know how to coexist with the bears, there’s no need for that.”
Bear with your neighbors
Black bears are large and capable of plenty of damage when provoked. They’re usually not looking for a fight, though. By giving bears their space and removing incentives for them to come into yours, people and bears have a better chance of living together peaceably.
• Don’t feed or approach bears.
• Store garbage and recyclables in bear-proof containers or keep them inside.
• Take trash outside on pickup day, but don’t leave it out the night before.
• Bears are most active between April and January, so refrain from feeding birds during those months.
• Keep pet food secure by feeding pets inside or portioning it out one meal at a time.
• Don’t add food to compost piles.
• Keep the grill clean and store it inside when you’re not using it.
— NC Wildlife Resources Commission