DO YOU DO WITH A BEAR IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD?
by Whit Gibbons
June 8, 2008
I heard about a dramatic environmental observation. The caller, Teresa,
was a former colleague who had heard all kinds of environmental tales
from people calling or emailing over the years when we worked together.
So when she said, "I just saw something in our yard that I thought
you should know about," I was attentive.
bears live around here?" she asked. "Because I just saw one
walking through our yard!" I responded that black bears had been
reported in South Carolina on rare occasions, but very seldom in residential
areas, and then asked, "Did you get a photograph?"
"I was too busy picking up the dog and getting inside," she
replied. "That bear was much bigger than the dog." Despite her
understandable response, black bears cause few injuries to people who
don't try to feed them or pick up their babies. Not sure what the dog's
fate might have been.
black bear is one of eight species of bears that inhabit the earth today,
and is among the least threatened environmentally. The cave bear, which
went extinct less than 10,000 years ago, would have made nine. According
to "Walker's Mammals of the World" by R. M. Nowak (1999, Johns
Hopkins University Press, Baltimore), bears are divided into subgroups
based on the closeness of their evolutionary relationships. One taxonomic
scheme places the American black bear in a group with brown (including
the grizzlies), Asiatic black, polar, sun, and sloth bears. The spectacled
bear of South America and the panda of China are alone in separate subfamilies.
seem to be doing well, but some species of bears are probably not far
from becoming extinct in the wild. The Malayan sun bear is the smallest
bear in the world, seldom reaching 150 pounds. Because of overhunting,
logging of forests, and poorly regulated laws, sun bears are declining
throughout their Asian range. Another Asian species, the sloth bear, is
a shaggy black beast with a light-colored V or Y on its chest. These bears
eat termites from large mounds by sucking them up like a vacuum cleaner.
Estimates are that fewer than 10,000 remain in the wild, yet up to 1,000
are killed each year for the absurd tradition of eating their gall bladders.
The plight of the panda is widely known. Other than noting that they are
very cute, eat bamboo, and are disappearing at about the same rate as
the Chinese landscape, what's to be said about giant pandas? You can be
executed for poaching pandas in China. Pandas are also a great example
of the complexity of determining evolutionary relationships. Where do
they fit in the tree of life? Some scientists consider them to be in the
same family as raccoons, but most authorities place them in the same family
as bears. Wherever pandas belong on the evolutionary scale, their future
in the wild is in danger. Who knows what the fate will be for the little-known
spectacled bear? These dark-colored bears with white circles around the
eyes are reportedly declining throughout most of their range because of
habitat loss and being overhunted in Peru and Venezuela.
habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate. If the current environmental
trajectory continues, it will mean the end of the species. Unless public
attitudes about habitat protection, global warming, and the importance
of letting other species share the planet with us change--and soon--most
of today's bears may shortly join the extinct cave bear in that black
hole called extinction.
you do if you see a black bear walking through your yard? Let it wander
wherever it chooses or report it to animal control? To me, either option
sounds fine. Just don't feed it or try to treat it like a pet. Getting
to see a free-ranging bear up close, especially outside of Great Smoky
Mountains National Park or other areas where they are protected, makes
for a memorable experience. The thrill of seeing a black bear anywhere
would surpass most other wildlife sightings, and to know that enough of
them are still around for one to amble through a suburban neighborhood
is kind of exciting.
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