AR-News: (US) Mountain residents learning to live with the bears

John W Kimbrell jkimbrell at
Tue Aug 19 02:01:17 EDT 2003

Posted Monday, August 18, 2003 - 6:39 pm  The Greenville News

Mountain residents learning to live with the bears
By Jason Zacher
jzacher at

PUMPKINTOWN [S.C.] — In the past few years, Vic and Kitty Chastain
stopped planting corn. They cut down their dozen apple trees. They took
down their bird feeders. They stopped composting their kitchen waste. 
All of the things that made living on their 130 acres in the shadow of
Table Rock so much fun for the past 25 years had to end. They couldn't
deal with bears anymore. 

They know it goes with the territory. It's part of living near Highway
11. But they're frustrated. 

"Calling (the Department of Natural Resources) is useless," Vic Chastain
said. "You're helpless. The law protects bears, but it doesn't protect
your property." 

Kitty Chastain said the problem has gotten much worse in the past several
years. When they moved to Chestnut Hill in 1977, they never had problems
with bears. 

Northern Pickens, Oconee and Greenville counties have one of the highest
concentrations of black bears in the entire country, experts believe.
State biologists estimate there are more than 300 bears roaming the three
counties — centered on northern Pickens County and the Jocassee Gorges.
Sam Stokes, the state's regional wildlife biologist in Clemson, said the
300 population count is "conservative." 

State Highway 11 runs the entire length of bear country, and the
picturesque scenery and rural life is drawing residents to mountain golf
courses and high-altitude retirement homes. 

The biggest thing all residents have to remember, experts say: The bears
were there first. 

"The bears up there now associate people with food," Stokes said. "They
come around houses because they've been successful in the past with
finding something to eat." 

Billy Owen only had one bear encounter in the first decade he lived along
Highway 11, but he's had dozens in the last few years. He tells stories
of bears ripping doors off garages and eating anything they can find in
someone's yard. Owen lives up near Pinnacle Mountain and there's nothing
behind his house but wilderness. 

Like any other mountain resident, Owen can recite a number of bear
stories: one bear ate 50 pounds of catfish food he bought; another one
repeatedly took his garbage cans hundreds of yards up a ridge, even
though the cans had been tied to a tree. 

"The bears just make themselves at home," Owen said. "If you've got
anything out that they can eat, they'll get it." 

Booming activity 

Stokes and the Chastains said the main reason for the increased bear
activity is the number of new residents. 

With that many new people in bear country, Stokes said the state won't
trap bears "in places where the bear is supposed to be." He said that
means the state will respond to a bear sighting in Sans Souci — like they
did in May 2002 — but probably not in the mountains. 

"Bears can move such a great distance," Stokes said. "We can trap a bear
in Oconee and move it to Greenville, but two days later, it'll be back in

The Department of Natural Resources is the recipient of calls from
panicked residents asking them to get the bears out of their yards. The
agency says the number of calls is down this year — though they don't
keep a tally of how many calls they get. 

But other mountain residents, especially in northern Pickens County, say
they've stopped calling the state, since they don't get help. 

The number of new residents is only one reason, Stokes said. Another
reason is that low-lying berry bushes, which grow the bears' favorite
food, can't grow in forest with enclosed canopies. The berries are now
growing in people's yards. That's partially the result of the protecting
and not logging mountain land. 

"A productive forest is actively timber harvested," Stokes said. "If you
cut trees, sunlight gets into the ground and blackberries can grow." 

No longer in the woods 

Volunteers working for the Department of Natural Resources recently
finished a survey of bear populations by hanging punctured sardine cans
in the forest throughout the Upstate. 

The results for the entire survey are not in yet, but some of the
volunteers recorded interesting data. Pickens naturalist Dennis Chastain,
only found seven of his 20 sardine cans "hit" — meaning there was
certified bear activity around the can like an empty can, tracks,
trampled underbrush or snapped trees. 

"That's the lowest number of hits I've seen in 15 years," he said. 

He usually averages more than 50 percent hit, and has had as many as 80
percent. The area he patrols is deep in the Jocassee Gorges near Table
Rock State Park and the Greenville Watershed property. 

Bears demolish the sardine cans like nothing short of a shotgun could.
Several of the hit cans were nothing more than fragmented shards of
metal. Around the trees where cans were hung, everything was snapped,
trampled or smashed to the ground. The stench from the five-day-old cans
is repugnant to humans but delightful to the bears. 

Bears weren't the only animals trying to get the sardines. Under one can,
two sets of coyote tracks circled where the sardine juice dripped to the

So even though the state isn't getting calls from panicked residents, the
bears aren't being seen in the woods, Chastain said. 

Stokes said he expects to get the final results from the bear survey in
the next several weeks. He also said he hopes the bear encounters will
slow down sometime this fall when a bumper acorn crop is expected in the

In the meantime, residents looking for peace and solitude along Highway
11 might not have people to disturb them, but are always mindful of
bears. Vic Chastain tells dozens of stories, about one bear leaning
against the glass in his sun-room and another ripping down the trellis
that supports his scuppernongs. 

He might have gotten used to the idea that bears are regular visitors to
his yard, but it doesn't make the thought any easier. 

"Am I scared?" he asked, taking off his camouflaged hat to reveal a bald
head. "See my hair? Not only did it stand up, it left!" 

Jason Zacher covers the environment and can be reached at 864-298-4272. 
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