Tony Navarro suspected he’d made an enemy.
Two months ago, the Carolina Forest man kept finding his backyard bird feeders knocked down and his outdoor furniture overturned. Wanting to catch the vandal in the act, he spent $600 on a video surveillance system. But when he finally saw the footage, Navarro discovered some unexpected culprits — black bears.
“My camera was clear,” he said. “It was unbelievable.”
Navarro lives in The Farm subdivision and he’s one of many people in the community who called the state’s coastal bear biologist, Kayla Brantley, to report bear problems this summer. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources received such an influx of reports from The Farm that Brantley came to the development’s clubhouse last week to talk about living with black bears.
“We got swamped with calls,” she said. “It’s the busiest time of the year for us.”
Part of the reason for the call volume is seasonal. June and July fall during the bear mating season, so it’s not surprising that the animals are on the move. But humans are also to blame. As development continues to consume the bears’ territory, the potential for encounters between man and beast grows.
“We’re moving in on their habitat,” Brantley said. “So we’re pushing them out. They’re trying to find new habitats, food sources, things like that.”
However, residents should not be alarmed by the bears’ presence. South Carolina officials have never received a report of a bear attack and there have been just two bear-related fatalities in the eastern United States over the last 100 years, according to DNR data.
“Bears can tolerate us much better than we can tolerate them,” Brantley said.
State officials estimate the coastal black bear population, which is concentrated in Horry and Georgetown counties, is around 300. Brantley said many of the calls she receives come from people who looking at one mass of fur.
“In a lot of these situations, it’s the same bear,” she said. “He’s just roaming through the area. But they don’t know that.”
Locally, the bear population saw a dramatic shift in 2009 when the Highway 31 wildfire torched nearly 20,000 acres, destroying much of the bears’ habitat.
That change is reflected in the number of human-bear interactions reported to DNR. Between 2007 and 2009, there were an average of 127 reports of human-bear contacts in the coastal area per year, according to DNR records. From 2013-2015, the average had dropped to 40 per year.
In recent years, DNR officials have started researching how the bears navigate the developments that continue popping up in the country.
“How are these bears moving?’” Brantley said. “Are they going through neighborhoods at night? … What travel corridors are they using?”
For one research project, DNR officials trapped bears and placed temporary GPS monitoring collars on them.
The most recent research, from 2016-2017, is still being analyzed. Brantley said DNR wanted to study the bear population now that the bears’ local habitat has recovered from the 2009 wildfire.
During last week’s presentation, Brantley fielded questions about whether bears will eat a strawberry patch (yes, they will clean you out), how fast a bear can run (don’t run from them; it’s a bad idea) and if they eat pets (coyotes are more dangerous to your animals than bears).
Brantley stressed that one of the best ways to avoid bears is to not leave food or garbage outside. She received two calls this summer about people illegally feeding bears, which she said makes the problem of bears in neighborhoods worse. Also, don’t expect DNR to remove a bear from your subdivision. They don’t relocate the animals.
Although there were many questions, Brantley said she doesn’t mind talking to neighborhoods about how to coexist with bears.
“I feel like I kind of need to,” she said, “to educate them.”
Navarro was grateful for the biologist’s advice. When he first saw the bears on his property, he was surprised to see them scratching their backs on his patio and raiding his bird feeders. But once he removed the bird feeders, his furry guests moved on.
“We they started realizing there was no food, that was it,” he said. “We didn’t see them anymore.”
Navarro hopes Brantley will return to The Forest for another wildlife talk.
“Maybe someday you can come back and talk to us about snakes,” he told her. “To me, they’re more dangerous than a bear.”
Tips for living with bears
No feeding: When bears become accustomed to food being provided, they will be repeat customers. Don’t feed the bears and they will likely leave the area. Also, it’s illegal to feed a bear.
Clean up: Make sure your garbage is in a sealed or bear-proof trash can. Pizza boxes and other household trash left in the open or in the back of a truck can attract the bears.
Guard pet food: Don’t leave pet food out in the open. If that food is stored outside, keep it in airtight storage containers.
Clean the grill: Cover charcoal and gas grills. Be sure to clean them thoroughly to keep the food odor from attracting bears.
Standing not a threat: A bear that is standing on its hind legs and surveying the area is likely just curious, not angry. Dangerous signs are foot stomping, loud snapping of jaws and huffing.
Be loud, move slowly: If you encounter a bear, speak loudly and slowly move away. Don’t run from the bear and don’t play with any cubs.
Bye, bye bird feeders: Bears have been known to clean out bird feeders. If you suspect a bear is getting into your bird feeder, remove it so the bear can move on. Another option is placing a rope or cable on the feeder that will allow you to raise it above the animals’ reach.
Beware of beehives: Bears will go after beehives, so protect them with an electric, bear-proof fence.
Contact SCDNR: If you spot a bear in your neighborhood, contact SCNDR via the agency’s website: www.dnr.sc.gov/wildlife/bear/sightingform.html.