What to do about bears in town

Walk around any corner onto Main Street in the evening and you may come face to face with a bear. Its commonplace to see bears in downtown Highlands for the past several weeks on Main Street and the surrounding blocks. Each night bears tip over garbage cans, feast on whatever they can find and move on to the next one.

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A bear feasts on some ice cream up on Sunset Rock in Highlands, N.C. in September 2018.

The Town of Highlands currently provides businesses along Main Street with dumpsters that have a locking mechanism to prevent bears from scavenging, but due to human error, they are not keeping the bears out.

“The shared dumpster model doesn’t work,” said Mayor Pat Taylor. “People aren’t locking them. We probably need to get out of the dumpster business.”

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A bear makes his/her way from Kelsey-Hutchinson Founders Park to Oak Street.

Town staff were instructed to look into the cost of purchasing bear-proof bins for each business at the last Board of Commissioners meeting. Taylor said other factors beyond the cost of individual bins include who is going to pay for it, how will this be implemented, does it work with the current garbage pick-up plan?

“The staff will be studying this and in time we’ll re-evaluate,” said Taylor. “We could buy all these containers, but if people don’t use them properly, they’re not going to work.”

If that time falls around December then the town will have even more data to guide the development of a bear management plan thanks to the efforts of Mitchell Ryan. Ryan is a University of North Carolina senior who is spending a semester at the Highlands Biological Station taking classes and conducting research. Mentoring Ryan is B.E.A.R. (Bear Education and Resource) Task Force whose goal is to promote safe, harmonious coexistence between humans and bears.

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After the bear makes the rounds on Oak and Main Streets it heads home towards the Hudson Library.

“It appears from everything I’ve heard, the number of bear/human conflicts have risen to levels unheard of in Highlands,” said Cynthia Strain, member of B.E.A.R. Task Force. “There have been bad years before, but this year takes the cake.”

Strain added this is not a new problem that was brought up for the first time.

“We’ve been asking the town for several years to do something to address some of these issues,” said Strain. “We’ve talked with them, provided information, put articles in the media, held numerous programs and nothing’s really changed. The problems have just gotten worse.”

B.E.A.R. hopes to propose a bear management plan to the town board after Ryan has conducted his research.

“The people in Highlands are more than ready for this,” said Strain. “We need laws, ordinances, fines, accountability. So many other towns have done this. We need something that’s going to work, a partial fix is not a remedy.”

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Visitors to Sunset Rock have named this bear the “Apple Butter Bandit” and they watched him sit down and open a jar of apple butter jam and eat it.

Ryan will be interviewing people regarding their bear interactions, speaking with community stakeholders such as police and fire departments, and town leadership. He will also analyze sightings, reports, and conflicts.

“If we compile a report of the causes of human/bear conflict then the town can develop a bear management plan and address it in a systematic way,” said Ryan.

Taylor said he looks forward to meeting with Ryan to discuss his report.

“It’s been a snowballing problem for six years,” said Taylor. “People used to actually feed the bears, that just encouraged this. We used to have a lot of residents who were bear hunters and helped keep the population under control, but now the bears are having 2-3 more cubs.”

Debbie Grossman, owner of Fresser’s Eatery, has had many interactions with bears at her business along Oak Street and keeps her garbage in a bear-proof shed.

“The bear came by and dumped a tank of oil in the alley, twice,” said Grossman. “The second time he just tore it apart.”

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Mitchell Ryan (left) conducts research and takes classes with other UNC students including Emily Williams (right) at the Highlands Biological Station and will be compiling a bear management report to present to the Town of Highlands to help develop a bear management plan.

She added that her shed has been damaged several times in the past with bears tearing off the handle, but they have never made it inside.

“The more we take over their space, they’re going to come into ours,” she said. “As a town, we need to do something besides shoot them.”

Sarah Workman, Highlands Biological Station field-side coordinator, said that once Ryan’s data is assessed the town can make educated decisions.

“These will be documented data and any issues can be addressed to develop a bear management plan,” said Workman.

Editor’s Note: I followed this bear around town for three weeks during his normal nightly routine, usually from 9:30-11:30 p.m. I took his photo under a variety of camera settings, light sources, and  scenarios and I still don’t feel I nailed the perfect bear shot. In over 20 years of journalism I think he is my most difficult photography subject. Also, I’ve named him Bernie, it was Bernice but some employees that work on Main Street who are  familiar with the bear assure me it is a male.

Also, to those who are visiting Highlands for the first time and hear there is a bear downtown, please do not pull your car up to it with your lights on, I’m no bear expert but that seems very threatening. Don’t wander down Oak Street with a drink in-hand asking where the bear is when it is three feet behind you in the shadows. Bears are incredibly fast despite their girthy size. Bernie can accelerate and change direction on a dime. There is no town-wide alarm that goes off when a bear is spotted, yes many people are shocked to hear that. Treat the bear with respect, use common sense, and bears will go about their business and go home.

Article and photos by Brian O’Shea
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