Bearsin state's coastal zone under development pressure: Reclusivepredators blocked by highways from migration routes. ByChris Dixon

Sunday,November27, 2005
Edition: FINAL, Section: NATION, Page A1


During2005, motor vehicles have killed a record number of black bears alongSouth Carolina's coastal highways.

By the end ofOctober, the state Department of Natural Resources reported 24 bearswere confirmed killed from the North Carolina state line to theFrancis Marion National Forest, a number already higher than the 20total deaths in each of the previous two years. Reclusive and seldomseen, these predators roam from the state line down into the FrancisMarion, where they appear to be arriving in increasing numbers.

Though relativelylittle is known about the coastal bear population, roughly estimatedto number between 200 and 300, state and federal biologists saydevelopment and roads are putting heavy pressure on bears and mightcut them off from traditional migratory routes into North Carolina,where an estimated 7,000 bears roam the state's coastal zone. Thiscould leave the future of South Carolina's bears in question.

"There are a lotof people who have lived for years in areas with high numbers ofbears and don't even know they're there," said DNR biologist JamieDozier. "I've had people call me and say, 'You're going to think I'mcrazy, but there's a bear walking in my backyard.' I say, 'No, Idon't think you're crazy at all.' "

According toDozier and fellow DNR biologist Sam Chappelear, the highestconcentration of black bears in the coastal region can be found inLouis Ocean Bay, a 9,383-acre wildlife refuge mere miles inland fromMyrtle Beach. Here, along shallow, elliptical bodies of water calledCarolina Bays, bears weighing up to 400 pounds feed on blueberries,huckleberries, gallberries and acorns. Best estimates from a 1999Clemson University study put the number of bears in Louis Ocean Bayat about 30, but given the roaming nature of males, these numbers arehard to pin down.

"Everywhere inthe country, the only thing we have is a population index for anarea," Dozier continued, "We set out scent stations — sardinecans or raspberry jam — and see if bears visit it."

Along the easternseaboard, male black bears have been known to roam as far as 600miles.

This could meanthat one might migrate down from North Carolina's Alligator RiverRefuge, travel along the Waccamaw, Pee Dee or Black river and easilyend up among the long leaf pines in Georgetown County, or across theSantee River in the Francis Marion National Forest.

Last year, a bearsighting was confirmed as far south as Awendaw. Because of farmingand long ago hunts, there are few bears south of Interstate 26 and inthe wilds of the ACE Basin. Today, the rapidly developing NorthCharleston area, along with Interstates 26 and 95, creates formidablebarriers to any south or westward migration.

Many Lowcountrybiologists and residents with homes in the Francis Marion NationalForest, including former state Sen. Arthur Ravenel and his neighbor,Ricky Thomas, think that roads and development to the north and easyfood are sending more of the animals into the forest and into contactwith its humans. Recently, Thomas saw and photographed at least onebear that has started eating the corn that area hunters have put outfor deer. In one case, the bear even likely ate a wounded deer.

"I was on my deerstand one night, and I shot a deer with my bow," said Thomas, asurveyor for Santee Cooper. "I didn't think I made a good hit, so Iusually will just let the deer lay up overnight and track it down thenext morning. The next morning I tracked it down, but the only thingleft was the head and the hide. The bear ate the whole deer."

Though his tractis also home to a horse, a dog, three cats, a flock of chickens and aturkey named Tom, Thomas said that the bear has never bothered any ofhis livestock or, to his knowledge, that of his neighbors. "I've hadmore trouble with wildcats and foxes," he said, "than anything else."

That a bear wouldgo after corn was no surprise to Ravenel, who said he first saw abear in the forest a few years ago, not far from his home. "My wifeand I were driving down Yellowjacket Road," he said, "and we saw abear just standing in the road. We slowed down and eased up on him,and he just kind of looked at us, and stepped off into the woods."

Recently, Ravenelsaid, he had been looking forward to the gift of a few ears of cornfrom the field of a neighbor.

"He said, 'Youknow that big field of sweet corn I had?' " Ravenel recalled. "And Isaid, 'Yeah.' Well, he said, 'We hardly got any at all. That damnbear went in there and tore that corn up just like he was a man. Hestripped it right off the stalks, and he'd take a few bites out of anear and throw it to the ground and go on to the next one.' "

According to theDNR's Chappelear, when bears end up frequenting a backyard that wasrecently a food-laden forest floor, the DNR is faced with thedifficult task of trapping and relocating what is now a "nuisancebear."

Ravenel said hewould like to see some of these bears relocated to remote portions ofthe ACE Basin, but Steve Lohr said it was likely they would migrateacross dangerous highways back to where they came from.

"All game andnongame species — deer, bobcats, foxes and turkeys —virtually anything that walks out there," Chappelear said, "if theseanimals are surrounded by development, where are they going to go?People need to realize that if they move to new developments, they'removing into these animals' backyards."

According toRavenel and Thomas, few forest locals hold ill will toward thesepredators. Many see the bears, beavers and even the odd cougarsightings as a sign of positive forest management. "There are moreand more animals out here that used to not be here," Thomas said.

For theconservation community and biologists, the increasing appearance ofbears in the Francis Marion may bode ill for bears in Georgetown andparticularly Horry counties to the north.

There, new roadssuch as the Conway Bypass, Carolina Bays Parkway and an increasinglytraveled S.C. Highway 90 have intruded into bear habitat withdamaging impact. Even though the roads are lightly traveled today,and were designed with fencing and wildlife underpasses andcorridors, bears are dying on the bypass and parkway in increasingnumbers. Traffic on these roads is forecast to increase.

Members ofdifferent conservation groups, including the Coastal ConservationLeague, worked closely with the state Department of Transportation inthe design of the Carolina Bays Parkway; but according to leagueDirector Dana Beach, while they clearly benefit from few on- andoff-ramps, bears are not using the wildlife corridors as much as washoped. And despite high fences, the animals still are ending up onthe road. Soon, he said, they will be walking into the backyards ofnewly-built subdivisions.

Beach and leagueland use director Jane Lareau said South Carolina's bears must dealwith a problem that extends beyond roads and development.

The animals areclearly threatened, but because they are a subset of a larger,healthier national population, they don't receive any sort of legalhabitat protection. Because the coastal population is too small for ahunting season, the bears get little attention from a huntingcommunity that would likely contribute more resources for preservingbear-specific lands and migratory corridors.

In SouthCarolina's Upstate, where limited bear hunting is allowed, thepopulation has shown a marked increase as hunters have pumped moneyinto conservation efforts.

"I wouldn't saymy solution would be to open a season for them," Beach said. "But thepolitical reality is that if there were a bear season, there would bea constituency and more funding allocated to find out more aboutthem."

"Every speciesthat's been hunted has a constituency, and its numbers are good,"added Lareau.

Biologistscontacted for this article agreed that a hunting season couldincrease funding for and awareness of coastal bears, but they alsogenerally agreed that bear numbers are too low to allow for a hunt,particularly since there are probably at least 10 vehicular beardeaths a year that go unreported, bringing this year's mortality rateto perhaps 34 or more animals.

Beach worriesthat the animals will remain in limbo, threatened by further habitatfragmentation and potentially cut off from migratory routes byincreasingly trafficked highways and Interstate 73, which is plannedfor the Grand Strand.

"There's astrange kind of social psychology at work that I haven't really seenarticulated," Beach said. "In a way, we'd sort of rather not knowabout these formidable animals that occupy our region with us.Because the more we knew about them, the more we would presumablytake them into consideration with our growth patterns and developmentdecisions. It's just more convenient not to know about them."

"We have a verypoor understanding of the population of bears, but it's not for lackof trying." said Steve Lohr, head wildlife biologist for the FrancisMarion National Forest, "The bottom line is that urbanization isbasically impacting all our rural areas and that's what's happeningwith bears."

Contact Chris Dixonat 745-5855 or