Bears in the Sunbelt: An Overlooked Planning Issue?

A Typical Bear Range Map. Source:

When people consider the rapidly expanding suburban sprawl around cities like Atlanta and Raleigh, the typical thoughts are of traffic and lost countryside. People concerned about the environment rightly lament lost rural areas and increased emissions. One issue that I think people fail to consider in planning is how increased contact with nature can be immediately dangerous to people. In the piedmont south, farmland is losing ground not just to suburbs, but to forest. And in the next ten years this region will almost certainly be facing a new negative consequence of reckless land use—bear encounters.

I miss the forests of New England whenever I travel south. There are forests here in the piedmont, but they are either young, patchy, and shrub-like or small and isolated. And compared to the ever-widening northern woods, the southern Appalachians provide only a narrow corridor of forest with seas of farmland on either side. This lack of proper wilderness has generally led me to the assumption that the bear population of eastern North America is like a funnel with Canada as its bowl and the southern blue ridge its narrow spout. The cartographers who made the above map seem to have the same idea. There are isolated populations in eastern North Carolina and Florida, but how can they be significant if they are cut off from Canada? How can these populations exist? As it happens, they are probably not cut off at all.

I was surprised to learn recently that every single town in Connecticut has reported bear sightings this year, even the cities. I had always been taught that bears were only to be found in the state’s northwest corner by the Appalachian Trail. However, my hometown, in the eastern part of the state, had no less than 28 sightings last year. As Connecticut is almost all dense forest maybe this should not be surprising, but if this part of the map, as well as what I’ve generally been taught, is wrong, then how much of the rest of the map is also incorrect? Black bear populations have been rising rapidly in the last 15 years, so the present-day population extent may not yet be adequately understood. While this map was accurate 20 years ago, it may be wildly inaccurate today. Still, this map is fun to look at and it is often posted online. If you read people’s comments, however, almost everything people have to say about it is in the form of personal anecdotes about how there are in fact bears where there should be none. People from the piedmont, lowland south, and Midwest all chimed in when this map went up—agricultural areas that I would never have imagined supporting anything bigger than deer. Someone in an eastern suburb of Charlotte shared a news video of a bear, someone south of Atlanta testified to seeing them all the time, another in central North Carolina, several people in supposedly bear-free parts of Ohio and Illinois, even someone from Maryland, probably the least forested area east of the Appalachians, insisted there were bears.

I went looking for a map that more accurately reflected the state of things, and I was disappointed. At least on the national level, maps barely move beyond the outdated consensus in the first one shown, with the same curious respect for the Virginia-North Carolina border. The most comprehensive work on the contemporary black bear range was the same except for one interesting aspect: it also reported sightings outside the supposed range. The distribution of these sightings clearly shows how the range borders are inaccurate in some places and even arbitrary in others if you look at the Pennsylvania-Ohio border. And what is going on with Connecticut? Not one sighting outside the traditional range where there are, in fact, hundreds.

Map Showing “Sightings” as Different from Range. Source: Scheick, B. & Mccown, J. (2014).

Clearly some of this range data was cobbled together from states with different ideas of what constitutes a range versus isolated sightings. Maybe Connecticut merely has extremely high standards for acknowledging any degree of presence (so much that 150 sightings in one town might not merit even one dot) and maybe Virginia will treat one rumor of a bear as establishing range. Where I found the most subtle consideration of black bear distribution was for North Carolina. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has a detailed map showing the gradual expansion of black bear territory east from the mountains and west from the coastal swamps over the past 50 years. The most recent documentation is 2010 with the proper range spilling down from the mountains and from the coast to almost the foot of the piedmont. It also acknowledges some sightings outside this range and contact between the western and eastern bear populations. However, it seems to make a proper distinction between sightings and range. If only this level of observation could be replicated with the same standards for the whole eastern US—there are plenty of more accurate species distribution maps, why not one for black bears?

NC Wildlife Resources Commission Black Bear Range Map. Source: Crystal Cockman.

I have never seen more young forest than in the piedmont in Virginia and North Carolina. Particularly on I-85 between Richmond and Durham it almost looks like a giant Christmas tree farm. What must have been farmland when I was born is now covered with shrub-height loblolly pines. In 50 years, this will be perfect bear habitat, almost like New England or northern Michigan. The problem here is that there is more suburban sprawl in the south—more urban area that was not originally built in a forest—and more being built. Bears have proven themselves quite adaptive to human environments, especially when they are quiet. Given how much of a nuisance bear encounters have become in Connecticut, in a declining region, we can only imagine how it might be in the booming, reforesting, heavily suburbanized sunbelt in the coming decades.

Forest Density in the Mid-Atlantic and Upper South. Source: USDA Forest Service.

When a region’s economy modernizes, it tends to lose farmland and gain forest—being able to afford more unproductive land. This is true in most of the world aside from especially valuable farmland like the California central valley or the Midwest. This brings about the odd consequence of re-wilding, and, in a country like the United States, concurrent suburban expansion bringing humans into maximum contact with nature for better or worse. The south is in the midst of this process. There are almost certainly bears in the Triangle already, it is only a matter of time before most of us see one.

Like many other issues, this is a planning challenge somewhat unique to the United States. Bears are coming! What will we do when tech workers are getting in their cars to drive two hours to work, from their newly built distant suburbs in areas as wild and densely forested as the Smokies? Will people need to pull into their garages and close the door before getting out of their cars? Will people need trashcans that wheel themselves? I would like to think we can do better than this. I mean to say let us grow our cities responsibly; I do not mean to inspire someone to invent a smart trashcan. But invent one if you like.

Feature Image: Bear is Residential Area. Source: LA Times.

About the Author: Evan King is a first year masters student in city and regional planning. His interests include transportation policy in the developing world, light rail, and freight movement on inland waterways. He can found in his free time trying to kayak long distances and making hand-drawn maps. Evan hails from central Connecticut and completed an undergraduate degree in Maryland.