Watch out for bears while you’re driving.
A rising bear population and increasing habitat encroachment have led to more frequent encounters with bears along South Carolina roads — and the second most-prolific mountain bear-hunting season in the state, according to wildlife experts with Clemson University and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
Tammy Wactor, a SCDNR bear biologist, says motorists should use caution — especially around dawn and dusk when bears typically travel.
“Slow down. Watch what you’re doing,” Wactor explained in a press release. “You can’t control an animal being on the road whether it’s a deer or a bear, but you’re in bear country, and there’s wildlife that’s going to be on the highway. You just need to watch out when you’re riding at night.”
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From 2005 to 2011, the latest data set available, 142 black bears were killed by cars along coastal highways, compared to 69 killed along mountain highways during the same time period, according to SCDNR statistics.
“It’s a species we need on the landscape, so you can bet that SCDNR is going to continue to monitor the population and pay attention to harvests and roadkill numbers,” said Shari Rodriguez, a Clemson University assistant professor.
The total mountain harvest for this year – in Oconee, Pickens and Anderson counties – was 108 bears, which ranks second only to the 127 harvested in 2013, according to wildlife experts.
Wactor said the state’s bear population has been increasing over the last 20 years and is expected to do so, which means harvest numbers will also increase. But the bigger concern is the number of bears killed outside of the hunting season and the impact that may have on the bear population.
In 2016, 20 bears were killed along Upstate roads and that number has already surpassed 30 in 2017, SCDNR said. From 2012 to 2015, 47 bears were killed along coastal roads.
“People are expanding into places where bears have been for decades, the bear population is growing and the bears have less habitat,” Wactor said. “This year, the reason you get these abnormal years is mass production. When there are no acorns to eat — and we’ve had very little soft mass, which would be the blackberries during the summer — bears have to move around to find food. And when they’re moving a lot more than they normally do, they’re going to get hit more.”
Sustaining the bear populations in a rapidly developing area where there are more highway systems and interactions with people is going to be a challenge, according to Greg Yarrow, chair and professor of Clemson’s forestry and environmental conservation department.
“They are one of those apex species that we are fortunate to have in this state, but there’s going to be continued challenges to maintain the population as areas are so rapidly growing,” he said. “Many of the conflicts that happen with bears are the animals being hit by cars in the coastal areas and as more of that area develops there’s going to be more and more challenges as far as conservation of bears.”