Highlands Mayor outlines strategy for creating a BearWise Community

Town of Highlands Mayor Pat Taylor addressed the issue of bears in Town at the monthly Community Coffee held at the Hudson Library on Friday. It was a packed room as bears have been an ongoing issue and many in attendance feel the problem needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. Taylor outlined a strategy that he and others hope to implement soon to make Highlands a BearWise Community.

A bear on Sunset Rock (Ravenel Park) snacks on a couple’s romantic picnic of crumpets and jam last fall.

What the Town Board has approved

Bear encounters were a nightly occurrence in downtown Highlands during fall 2018. Each night, bears would roam a circuit around downtown hitting their favorite hot spots and leaving garbage strewn throughout Main Street, Kelsey-Hutchinson Founders Park, and Oak Street.

Bears roamed around Main Street last fall hitting garbage cans and leaving garbage strewn throughout the area.

Taylor said the Board of Commissioners approved the purchase of approx. 40 bearproof cans with a price tag of $55,000 to replace the current garbage cans along Main Street and other town properties at February’s BoC meeting on Thursday.

Tipped over trash cans were a common sight in downtown Highlands each morning after the bears had come through the night before.

The new cans will be bolted to the ground, have smaller openings to discourage bears digging through the can and residential and commercial trash from being disposed of in them, but could take up to six months to arrive, be installed, and be ready for use.

An artist’s rendering of the new bearproof trash cans to be installed on Main Street and other town properties.

Taylor said solving the problem does not stop at bearproof garbage cans on Main Street and there is much more to be done.

“It’s not that simple, everyone has to participate in this,” said Taylor. “We’re at the point where this needs to be addressed.”

He added of the estimated 20,000 bears in North Carolina, most are located on the East Coast, but the number of bear/human encounters is particularly high in Highlands. Taylor said the main goal of a BearWise community is the safety of bears and humans by minimizing encounters.

Pictured below is a video of a bear eating ice cream a boy left unattended near the treeline on Sunset Rock last fall.

Taylor was accompanied by experts Cynthia Strain, member of B.E.A.R. Task Force; North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission Biologists Justin McVey and Ashley Hobbs; and Sky Valley, Ga. Mayor Robert MacNair and staff who have addressed similar issues with bears in the past and are currently firming up their bear management policies and ordinances.

Creating a BearWise Community

Strain said that everyone in the community needs to get involved, including businesses, homeowners’ associations, country clubs, neighborhoods, etc., all of which can be certified as BearWise.

She said the benefits of a BearWise community include 80 percent less interaction with bears, safe practices that help reduce problems with other nuisance animals (raccoons, squirrels, ect.), confidence to enjoy nature in a bear-safe community, empowering residents to get involved, and receiving recognition for high standards of safety by being certified as a BearWise community by the NCWRC.

Town of Highlands Mayor Pat Taylor speaks to a full house about bear management at Community Coffee with the Mayor at the Hudson Library on Friday.

There are several steps to becoming a BearWise community and B.E.A.R. Taskforce will act as a liaison between the Town and the NCWRC throughout the process.

First, a community needs to investigate its problem, Highlands has done that and there are several, including improper disposal of trash, not securing trash, people intentionally feeding bears to attract them, using birdfeeders in yards that bears can access and more. Second, get organized and talk with neighbors about issues they’ve had with bears because your actions affect your neighbors. Third, it’s time to act, use BearWise resources and tools and techniques other communities have used to solve the problem.

Mitchell Ryan (left) conducts research with UNC student Emily Williams (right) at the Highlands Biological Station and compiled a bear management plan that was presented to the Town of Highlands on Friday to help develop a bear management plan.

Strain added that new members to the community and visitors also need to be educated, sources of food need to be identified and secured, there needs to be protocols for when and how to report bear activities, and lastly, there needs to be ordinances in place for violations.

“You have to have ordinances with teeth in them,” said Strain. “If they aren’t slapped with a huge fine, it won’t do anything.”

A bear snacks on some ice cream a boy left unattended near the treeline on Sunset Rock last fall.

Taylor said town staff will discuss the issue at their staff retreat and workshop in March. Some highlights Taylor would like to see implemented throughout this process include getting rid of shared commercial dumpsters. He said they are not working because employees at businesses do not use the pin mechanism to lock it and wants to see town move towards using secured 95-gallon toters (cans on wheels). He added that he hopes the town will look into spending about $400,000 on toters that the public can rent.

“Shared dumpsters, I want to see them gone, they don’t work,” said Taylor. “The days of putting your trash on the roadside, gone. We’re moving towards having ordinances on how to dispose of garbage, feeding bears, and extending the leash law in residential neighborhoods.”

McVey referred to an unsupervised dog tied up in a yard as “lunch” to a bear.

He added that the NCWRC is already working with several country clubs in the area in efforts to improving their bear-safe practices.

6 BearWise Basics:

To learn more about BearWise Communities click HERE.

Bear management was previously covered on Plateau Daily News in October, click HERE to read more.

Editor’s Note: Community Coffee with the Mayor is an open forum to express one’s opinion and discuss topics that affect the Town with Mayor Pat Taylor. Nothing is official until voted on by the BoC.

Article and photos by Brian O’Shea
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The bear photos below were primarily taken during the evenings last fall in downtown Highlands. There are also photos from Community Coffee with the Mayor on Friday.

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