BURNSVILLE, N.C. — A skinny, three-legged black bear had become a fixture at an upscale housing community deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains, rummaging through trash cans and playfully ambling along the golf course
After the bear started breaking into homes looking for food, once stealing two pies from a kitchen counter, some people had enough. Wildlife advocates scrambled to find a sanctuary for the animal, but time ran out: in August, the bear was shot and killed by management.
That bear’s death in Mountain Air, about 35 miles north of Asheville, has become a flashpoint for outraged wildlife advocates who say the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission needs to find non-lethal ways to handle so-called nuisance bears.
“When it comes to nuisance bears, the state’s policy is simple: shoot them,” Millie Bowling said. “And that’s just wrong. That needs to change.”
This is the latest controversy surrounding the Wildlife Resources Commission. Wildlife advocates were upset last year when state biologists killed nine penned deer on a homeowner’s property in Randolph County. The commission said the deer were killed because they had to be tested for a fatal disease called chronic wasting, which can’t be done on live animals. But the owner, Wayne Kindley, and supporters said they were outraged.
Wildlife and environmental groups also are angry that the commission allowed overnight hunting of coyotes throughout North Carolina this year, including in the area inhabited by the only wild population of red wolves, one of the world’s most endangered animals. The groups opposed the rule because red wolves resemble coyotes and are hard to tell apart even during the day.
David Cobb, chief of the agency’s Division of Wildlife Management, said the Mountain Air community decided to kill the three-legged bear.
“This was an animal that had caused damage to property multiple times, and the property owners decided they were going to address that issue. And they did,” he said.
But wildlife advocates say the state didn’t do enough to help them relocate the bear.
“The idea of shooting bears should be an absolute last resort,” said Leslie Hayhurst, who lives on Beach Mountain and runs the Genesis Animal Sanctuary.
Some states — mostly in the West — capture and relocate nuisance bears to remote wildlife settings. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department routinely relocates and removes black and grizzly bears as part of normal department operations. But in many states, there’s no place remote enough to relocate them. And the bears seldom stay where they are released and may return to where they were caught.
In North Carolina, the agency can relocate a bear but it’s done on a case-by-case basis, and it usually only involves orphan cubs, Cobb said.
“There are very few places you can put a bear that won’t be in somebody’s backyard,” said Bradley Howard, the agency’s private lands program coordinator.
North Carolina has seen a major resurgence in black bears. A generation ago, their numbers had dwindled because of hunting and development, and the animals were only found in the most remote mountains and coastal swamps.
Now there are about 15,000 black bears in North Carolina, with about 5,000 in the western North Carolina. Bear complaints began to increase in the 1990s, primarily in residential areas of western North Carolina where developers began building multimillion-dollar homes in gated communities.
The number of bear complaints has doubled in the last decade — from 277 in 2001 to 671 in 2011, according to the agency.
Many involve bears who have become too comfortable around humans. They wander into backyards, looking for food. Most of the blame can be placed on humans, said Bill Lea, a nature photographer and naturalist who tried to find a sanctuary for the three-legged bear.
If people don’t lock up garbage cans, bears will sift through the trash. If people leave food in bird feeders, bears will find it.
“Bears that have learned to get food from people — either direct feeding, or the garbage and bird feeders … and they subsequently lose their fear of people,” Lea said.
In the case of the three-legged bear, Lea said, officials took the easy route.
Residents in the Mountain Air community first saw the injured bear in November 2011. At the time, its right front leg was still attached but appeared to be hanging by a flap of skin. It’s unclear how the leg was injured.
When the bear reappeared in the spring, its leg was missing. Construction workers building a house on the development began feeding the bear because he was so skinny, said Beverly Hammond, who lives in the community.
For some, Mountain Air is their second home. So when they returned to the development for spring and summer, they began complaining about the bear breaking into homes.
Management sent emails and posted notices advising people to keep their windows and doors closed on the ground level. Some residents ignored the warnings, Hammond said. By early summer, Hammond and other activists were racing to find a sanctuary to take the bear. She said she begged for another day or two, but the community’s management refused, and the commission also offered no help.
“Everyone in our development wanted the bear to be removed, but most wanted him to be removed alive and taken to Grandfather Mountain, and not removed from our development dead in the back of a pickup truck,” she said.
“It was just devastating.”