The Social Carrying Capacity for Hipsters and Bears

Saturday, January 28th, 2017

The mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina has attracted countless hipsters — and black bears:

New developments [in the 1990s] meant more room for people — but, as residents and scientists soon learned, they were also perfect safe spaces for bears, full of food and birdseed and free from hunters. As Asheville grew into a thriving metropolis, the bears stuck around and thrived, too, lumbering between the sprawling Smokey Mountains and the cramped yet trash-rich developments. In 1993, the Wildlife Resources Commission got 33 calls about human-bear encounters. In 2013, they got 569.

The scientists behind the Urban-Suburban Bear Study are looking at this influx from a number of angles, investigating the bear’s lifestyles, travel routes, and family relationships. But they’re also interested in figuring out this new habitat’s “social carrying capacity” — in other words, exactly how many of these new neighbors the human residents of the city are willing to tolerate. “If the habitat can support a lot, but the public doesn’t want them, we run into issues,” says Dr. Chris DePerno, the study’s principal investigator.

The very design of the study requires a certain amount of public support. Residents throughout the city have volunteered to host humane traps on their property. Scientists check the traps every morning and evening, or more often if a resident alerts them to activity. If a bear has wandered in, they come by, attach a GPS collar to track the bear’s movements, and then let it go. If they couldn’t use people’s backyards as bait, the whole study would be doomed. “Everything we do is on private land,” says DePerno. “If we didn’t have public support, we could not have done this project — but we’ve had a tremendous amount of support.”

Of course, the reverse is also true — involving the public in the study has allowed the researchers to teach ordinary civilians about bear management, answering their questions, assuaging their fears, and making sure that they do not, under any circumstances, feed them. This makes DePerno hopeful — if city people can accept bears, maybe there’s a chance that other animals driven into civilization will get a fair shake. “It goes beyond just bears in Asheville,” he says. “We’re hoping to educate other scientists and the public on the potential for managing other urban species.”

Having bears next door does require shouldering some unique responsibilities. In bear-heavy areas, Ashevillians are asked to put their trash out the morning of pickup rather than the night before. When that’s not enough, a kind of arms race can ensue, with some residents chaining their cans to trees and bolting the lids. (Boll freezes any food trash and puts her bag of used cat litter on top of it on trash day, and says it works like a charm.)

Birdfeeders are pretty much a no-go — bears will crush the whole feeder like it’s one big seed, and gobble up the contents. They like to claw the covers off of hot tubs. And in Boll’s neighborhood, walking at night requires a small gear kit: “You carry a light and a whistle, and you’re constantly on the lookout,” she says. “Not because anything that has happened that I know of — but because hello, there are bears!”

But most human residents seem to think it’s worth it. “Every single bear sighting I’ve had has impressed me a lot, because I’m in awe of them,” says Boll. She says she doesn’t know anyone anti-bear, and that new residents who are confused or frightened are quickly educated by their neighbors, if the scientists don’t get to them first. Researchers have extremely detailed bear whereabouts data, but they haven’t released it — not because they fear vengeance against the bears, but because they’ve realized that people love the bears too much, and might go looking for them.


  1. TWS says:

    You know, you could just shoot them, right? It’s not like we don’t have a tried and true solution for the urban bear problem.

    The English managed to solve the problem sometime around when Leif Ericsson was picking berries and grapes in America.

    They’re not endangered, never will be. Relocating an animal never, ever works. Just shoot the damn things before some kid gets mauled.

  2. Phil B. says:

    I agree with TWS – familiarity with humans will eventually lead to someone getting mauled and/or killed and the bear learning that these humans are not very strong, not very fast and easy to kill. Taste good too … It’s practically teaching them to regard the population as an “all you can eat” buffet.

    The Disney attitudes and lack of common sense astounds me. But look on the bright side – they are only hipsters.

  3. Mikeski says:

    “That was incredible. No fur, claws, horns, antlers or nothin’… Just soft and pink.” — Gary Larson’s crocodiles

  4. Lucklucky says:

    Well, the NRA could launch a “Social Carrying” program to make it more acceptable…

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