CHARLOTTE, NC (Bruce Henderson/The Charlotte Observer) - Black bears are on the move in North Carolina's mountains unusually early for the second straight winter, state wildlife officials say.
While mama bears with cubs are still in their dens, yearling males and cub-less females are already wandering. Some urban bears, with food plentiful, might not hibernate at all.
"We've seen this pattern for two years in a row," said Mike Carraway, mountain regional supervisor for the state Wildlife Resources Commission. "Part of it may be the warm weather, and it may be that food is available around town year-round, but yes, we're seeing bear activity."
January and February were both about 7 degrees above normal in Asheville. Last winter, December and March were unusually warm.
The wildlife commission has fielded 14 calls since December of bears nosing through garbage cans and strolling across lawns, Asheville's Citizen-Times reported. One bear was reported getting under porches.
But calls about sightings aren't necessarily complaints. As bear numbers grew from a low of about 2,000 statewide in 1980 to at least 20,000 now, most people have learned to live with them.
Asheville residents often see bears. The mountains' largest city is the focus of a five-year study of urban bears that pass through or live in and around the town.
Residents have reason to be wary around animals that can reach 500 pounds, sport inch-long claws and sprint at 35 mph, but they're also mostly tolerant of them. Because no hunting is allowed, the city serves as a bear sanctuary.
Bear numbers began growing in the 1970s, when the state created sanctuaries, mostly within national forests, where bears could not be hunted and their young could disperse.
More than half of North Carolina's bears live in the coastal plain, where wildlife refuges and cropland produce males weighing more than 800 pounds.
But bear range is creeping closer to cities from the state's western and eastern ends. Breeding bears already live within two counties of Mecklenburg.
To stay safe, experts hope people elsewhere will follow Asheville's cues: Take caution among bears, especially mamas with cubs, and keep out of reach the trash cans and bird feeders that lure bears toward homes.
How much trouble bears get into has a lot to do with how the acorn crop does. In good years, the animals can gorge in a single area. When the crop is poor, they wander and collisions with cars go up.
"This year is fair, as most years are, fair and spotty," Carraway said.
The Wildlife Resources Commission will hold public forums over the next two weeks about its bear-management plan, particularly in regard to coastal animals. The plan is meant to stabilize the bear population and could result in extended hunting seasons or larger bag limits.