Closer Look

Bears’ strong sense of smell can be a problem for humans

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Victor Treutel

In the mountains of Western North Carolina, the bear population is estimated to be more than 8,000, a considerable increase since the 1970s’ estimate of 2,000. This growth, along with the added popularity of hiking, has caused a concerning increase in bear and human interactions.

Black bears are constantly on the prowl for food, and if they find an easy source they will return repeatedly. Some bears visit shelters and camping areas in search of food. Hikers have always been advised to hang their food from a tree. Not all hikers use this method, but most seem to at least attempt it. It is difficult and time consuming to find a suitable branch and then to sling a rope over it. Some hikers say that it takes them over an hour; others give up and just sleep with their food.

However, it is estimated that black bears’ sense of smell is about seven times greater than a bloodhound’s. Thus, bears can smell food hanging in a tree and some have learned how to get to it. [The Nantahala Hiking Club] has received reports of bears working together to get to the food bags. Many hikers use an Ursack, which is a sturdy canvas bag reinforced with Kevlar that can cost upwards of $250. The manufacturer states right on the box that the bag is “bear resistant,” but we have received numerous reports of bears shredding these bags and getting the hikers’ food.

THIS FALL, Hudson Library, which falls under the guidance of the Macon County Library Trustees, provided a full display and brochures focused on becoming bear-aware.

Reluctantly, some hikers have switched to the larger and heavier bear vault ($100). These canisters are meant to be wedged against a tree or stump away from camp. They do not stop the bear from smelling the contents, but it is virtually impossible for the bear to get access to them. The U.S. Forest Service and the Nantahala Hiking Club highly recommend the use of these hardened canisters but, short of a law requiring them, most hikers will not because of their bulkiness and weight.

When a bear finds an easy source for food, it will return. After the second time, this source will become imprinted in its mind and it will keep coming back. Shelters and camping areas can be an easy source, especially if hikers do not properly secure their food. We have received reports of bears stalking a shelter throughout the night.

BEARS’ SENSE of smell also means they will break into cars and sometimes buildings. In early October, a high-end Highlands restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator unit at the back of the building was opened and vandalized by a bear, caught on camera, which ate several pounds of seafood and meat.

Even though bears see humans as the alpha and are generally scared off by our presence, many are becoming emboldened to visit shelters and camping areas. This is concerning and many Appalachian Trail-maintaining clubs have begun installing bear boxes (large metal storage bins) at shelters and campsites. Bears are unable to get into these boxes and, when used properly, bears will learn not to waste their energy trying to get to the food stored inside.

Victor Treutel is president of the Nantahala Hiking Club.