Black bears

Black bears, like this one, roam Horry and Georgetown counties.

There were multiple black bear sightings in the Waccamaw Neck last week, continuing an upward trend of interaction between bears and humans in the area.

A biologist for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources came to Murrells Inlet after multiple calls about a bear in the Mount Gilead Road area. The biologist and another DNR employee used a tranquilizer to calm the bear and the agents relocated it back to an area closer to the river.

Kayla Brantley, a DNR wildlife biologist who studies South Carolina’s coastal black bear population, says loss of habitat is leading to more reports of bear sightings. 

‘’One of the things we are finding down here on the coast is that habitat loss is an issue,” said Brantley, “so sightings and calls to our office are definitely on the increase.”

While “transient” bears have been sighted in nearly every county in the state, biologists believe that “sustainable” year-round populations exist across both Georgetown and Horry counties, as well as parts of Berkeley, Dillon, Marion, Williamsburg, Dorchester and Charleston counties. Some parts of the estimated total range for the coastal bear population are largely uninhabited, but in this fast-growing region of the state, it was inevitable that in some places new development would bring residents into the bears’ proximity.

One Litchfield resident saw a bear in her neighborhood and used a cell phone to capture video of the animal. She followed along for several blocks as the bear ran through yards, crossed residential streets and tried to find an area to get away from humans. Social media comments from many people said that the woman shouldn’t be chasing the bear just to capture the video, and some people said they felt bad for the bear at its loss of habitat.

Seeing at a distance

David Lucas is with the Charleston-area office of DNR. On May 17, he told the South Strand News that “Bears are on the move right now.”

He’s among people who “enjoy seeing them at a distance.”

Homeowners need to stop doing things that attract bears and other wildlife, Lucas said, such as leaving pet food out in yards after bears have been sighted.

Lucas said that DNR personnel went to the Murrells Inlet area to look into the reported sightings on May 17. They were also likely to check into sightings in the Litchfield area.

Along with the bears, he noted that alligators are more active now.

While they don’t hibernate, alligators and other reptiles go into a state called “brumation” during cooler weather. They are dormant, but will leave their nest or other area to drink water.

“When they come out from brumation,” Lucas said, “they tend to wander and spread out.”

Alligators are territorial, so juveniles will tend to travel further to find their own territory that’s away from an older male’s area.

“When an alligator is looking for a new territory, it’s not unusual to travel for miles. Once they get that territory, they stay in the general area," Lucas said.

For most animals, Lucas said, if people leave them alone the animals won’t bother humans. If food isn’t available, the animals will generally move along.

Who you gonna call?

DNR has an online form people can use to report Bear sightings: http://www.dnr.sc.gov/wildlife/species/bear.html.

This information is an ideal tool to capture these reports, the agency says, as it will help biologists identify possible home range expansions, nuisance problems, etc. all of which assist with black bear management.

It is not necessary to call DNR with every sighting of a bear, but in an emergency situation, residents can always reach the SCDNR Dispatch Office at 1-800-922-5431 (the Operation Game Thief hotline), or dial 911 to reach first responders in their local area. Road-killed bears should be reported by calling the OGT line.

Black bears’ natural diet consists of berries, nuts and plant matter (over 80 percent) as well as insects and meat (less than 20 percent). However, they are also opportunistic and will feed on whatever is readily available.

Bears use their incredible sense of smell to find alternative food sources such as garbage, bird feeders, outdoor pet food, agricultural crops, etc., which can result in them becoming nuisance bears. It is illegal to intentionally put out food to attract bears, said Brantley, and if that activity is suspected, it can also be reported to the SCDNR hotline number.

While people may be excited about seeing a bear, biologists urge them to remember that bears are wild animals and should be respected. Black bears are usually shy, evasive and non-aggressive toward people. Neither a human fatality nor even an attack has been attributed to a black bear in South Carolina.

Coastal residents in “bear country” may have to adapt to the same tactics that their Upstate counterparts have been employing for years. Those include:

  • Bird feed and feeders: If you are aware of a bear being in your area, go ahead and remove your bird feeder for at least two weeks; the bear will move on quickly.
  • No garbage: Keep garbage in tightly shut or bear-proof trash cans; garbage left in the open, in an open dumpster, or in the back of a truck is an open invitation for a bear.
  • Pet food storage: Store pet food properly if kept outside; put pet food in airtight storage containers and don't leave leftover food out in the open.
  • Clean grills: Keep charcoal and gas grills covered and clean to keep food odors from attracting bears.
  • Beehives: If you're going to have beehives in bear territory, protect your investment with an electric, bear-proof fence.
  • No feeding: A bear that becomes accustomed to having food provided is an accident waiting to happen; don't feed a bear the first time and it will likely leave the area soon.

Bear activity increases this time of the year and homeowners should be mindful of the attractants (bird feeders, trashcan, grill, etc.) they may have. One of the biggest problems we face on the coast is birdfeeders. If you have a birdfeeder and there has been a bear sighting reported in your area, go ahead and remove the birdfeeder for at least two weeks. If there hasn’t been a sighting reported after two weeks, then you may put your bird feeder out again if you wish. In some cases, the birdfeeder may have to be removed once again. Overall, if you remove that attractant, the bear will move on.