ASHEVILLE, N.C. A North Carolina state wildlife biologist successfully freed a mother black bear with three cubs the morning of April 24, after her neck had been trapped in a plastic lid for at least four days.
Justin McVey, wildlife biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission, said he was able to pull the lid off the bear’s head after he found her walking through an East Asheville neighborhood about 10 a.m. and shot her with a tranquilizer dart.
He said the agency has been working around the clock to locate the bear since they were first notified about her by a homeowner around 5 p.m. on April 21.
Video and photos from residential security cameras and from the group Help Asheville Bears show the mother bear appearing to be in distress from the lid – the kind on a large container of dog food or birdseed – but still able to walk and eat, with her three small, 1- or 2-month-old cubs trailing close behind.
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Jody Williams, president of Help Asheville Bears, says in one of several videos posted to the group’s Facebook page, that they had been using drones to locate the mother bear. Williams came close enough to the bear in one video to try to remove the lid, but the bear resisted his attempt.
The videos drew more than 1,000 views and hundreds of comments from people distraught over the bear’s plight.
After hearing that McVey had freed the mama bear, Williams said, “That is so awesome.”
He had been critical of what he said was the commission’s slow response, but then called McVey’s actions “hero stuff.”
“We are all so glad that they actually came out and did that. I wish they would have done that maybe two days prior when we were sitting with her and I could have kept her there. But the end of the story is, they did it. And we’re so happy,” Williams said.
On April 22, commission staff set out two culvert traps – which look like giant barrels with trap doors – in the area the bear had been spotted. Cameras were placed on the traps and McVey said he had been monitoring them the past two nights. He got an alert that a trap was deployed at 8:05 a.m. April 24.
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When he checked to see who had been munching the free food, it was just a raccoon, which he set free.
“As I was driving out, there was nobody out. It was real quiet in the neighborhood. And there she is just moseying, not a care in the world. She was super calm,” McVey said of spotting the mama bear.
He called his supervisor to discuss whether to dart the bear. “Free darting,” meaning when an animal is not in a trap, is considered risky because the bear might bolt and run far enough to where she wouldn’t be found, he said. There is also a danger of a person being hurt.
They felt the conditions were safe and the time was right.
McVey couldn’t dart her in the optimal spot – the neck – because of the lid, so opted for her rump. She didn’t run.
“I got really lucky. She stayed there, the cubs went up a tree, I pulled off the lid off, reversed her (gave her a tranquilizer antidote), done,” he said. “And then she woke up, the cubs were balling, and then they all came to her and I left.”
East Asheville is an area heavily frequented by black bears due to its woodsy terrain and neighborhoods that can entice bears looking for food, McVey said. There are an estimated 7,000-8,000 black bears in Western North Carolina, and some 25,000 living across the state.
“This whole story illustrates the point that we live in bear country, and it’s important for us to be responsible,” he said.
Follow Karen Chávez on Twitter: @KarenChavezACT.