“Black bears and North Carolinians have tussled over space for centuries. While traveling through the western part of the state in 1774, naturalist William Bartram complained about them in his journal, writing ‘the bears are yet too numerous.’ American pioneers hunted them for food and for sport, often to excess — when trapper ‘Big Tom’ Wilson died in Asheville in 1908, his obituary bragged that he had killed 110 bears. All of this barely dented their numbers.
“Starting in the 1920s, though, development and deforestation began taking their toll. When a midcentury bout of chestnut blight decimated the bears’ food supply, they were already struggling. By 1970, there were only about 1,500 left in the state, and North Carolina conservationists began setting aside protected land to bring their numbers up, but things still looked grim.
“Then came the 1990s, and the housing boom. New developments were perfect safe spaces for bears, full of food and birdseed and free from hunters…. In 1993, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission got 33 calls about human-bear encounters. In 2013, they got 569.
“[Today] somewhere around 8,000 black bears range around western North Carolina, and many make Asheville part of their meandering….The scientists behind [N.C. State’s] Urban-Suburban Bear Study are interested in figuring out this new habitat’s ‘social carrying capacity’ — exactly how many of these new neighbors the human residents of the city are willing to tolerate….”