HIGH COUNTRY — On June 11, the organization Help Asheville Bears confirmed a 30th bear in Western North Carolina with a missing leg. Since 2019, Help Asheville Bears has identified, documented and observed bears in the region, noting bears who have lost limbs. The newest bear identified was located in the Ashe County town of Lansing, missing its front limb. Help Asheville Bears offers rewards up to $10,000 for information about this or other bears missing limbs.

Originating in Asheville but serving communities throughout the western North Carolina region, Help Asheville Bears was started by a group of neighbors who enjoyed watching bears. Jody Williams, a founding member of Help Asheville Bears, described watching one bear who the community named Peaches who “would nurse 10 feet from my porch, dig in logs, swim in my trout pond. She felt safe.”

Peaches’ story

On Aug. 18, 2019, Peaches came to the Williams property missing the lower half of her front right leg. Jody said that he’s “not ashamed to say” he cried and called his brother, Alex Williams, operational director of Help Asheville Bears, to come see. Alex “knew something was wrong,” said Jody, by the look on Jody’s face when Alex arrived at Jody’s property.

That same night, another bear was discovered missing a leg by the community of bear watchers within a mile of where Peaches was found. Concerned by the appearance of these injured bears, Jody, Alex and friends from their community formed Help Asheville Bears to document injured bears and discover what was causing the similar injuries.

Since late 2019, Help Asheville Bears has located 30 bears in Western North Carolina missing limbs. An offshoot of Help Asheville Bears, Tony Wisniewski, a retired Raleigh police officer known as “Ski,” operates the Poacher Strike Force, a group of ex-police and law enforcement officials that investigates incidents of poaching. Wisniewski reported that there are two consistent trends in these injuries across the 30 bears: bears missing legs from the elbow down, and back legs missing from the ankle down. He contended that these injuries are consistent with illegal trapping, that the front leg injuries are most likely from snare traps set atop food and the back paws are lost to leg hold traps. The back legs observed by Help Asheville Bears are not missing from the ankle down, nor do bears demonstrate front legs missing from only the ankle down.

Mechanism of injury

North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission stated that these injuries may be more consistent with a common threat to bears: vehicular accidents. According to the NCWRC’s black bear annual report of 2019 compiled by NCWRC black bear and furbearer biologist Colleen Olfenbuttel, after regulated hunting, vehicular collisions were the second leading cause of bear mortality.

Nearly 92 percent of bear fatalities in 2019 were from managed harvests, in which hunters had permits to legally hunt bears. Seven percent of bear fatalities were due to collisions with vehicles. These 216 collisions represented a 36 percent decrease from the prior year. Of these car accidents, 73 percent of the vehicle-related bear mortalities were in the Coastal Bear Management Unit, which includes Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson, Wayne, Sampson, Cumberland and Robeson, as well as additional counties to the east. The higher number of vehicle-caused fatalities in the CBMU is “likely reflecting the higher bear population and number of highways in the region,” according to the annual report.

The NCWRC report states that a majority of vehicle-caused mortalities occur in October, followed by November and June. This is often due to the increased movement of young bears during these months. Male yearlings and subadults tend to travel farther from their natal homes in comparison to females, the report says, explaining their increased contact with vehicles. Conversely, female bears’ age distribution for vehicle-caused mortalities is more evenly spread.

As of 2018, the bear population in the Mountain Bear Management Unit, which includes Surry, Wilkes, Cladwell, Burke and Cleveland counties, as well as all counties to the west, was estimated to be around 5,500 to 6,100 bears. The population was estimated to be around 11,470 to 12,700 bears in the CMBU in 2016, according to the North Carolina Wildlife Commission’s annual black bear report.

Olfenbuttel says it is “acutally very good” that about 92 percent of bear mortalities are due to hunting because “that means it is regulated and we can control that. If I need to grow more bears in an area, let’s have very conservative hunting seasons. If we have too many (bears), then we have a more liberal hunting season.” While she states that “I can’t regulate roadkill mortalities,” Olfenbuttel notes that since 2006 the NC Wildlife Commission has worked with the NC Department of Transportation to create wildlife underpasses to aid the movement of wildlife and avoid accidents with vehicles.

“Unfortunately, quite a few bears are hit on our roadways, especially in Asheville,” Olfenbuttel said. With a growing bear population, she added that there is a “ridgeline that bears just funnel into and they get to Asheville and go ‘wow, there’s lots of food to eat, lots of bird seed and unsecured garbage.’” The high density population in the area leads to increased bear mortalities due to vehicles in that area.

Unlike deer, Olfenbuttel said, quite a few bears survive their collisions with cars.

“They have a lower center of gravity, kind of a broader side, and sometimes, the bear hits and almost, I would say, bounces off,” Olfenbuttel said. Not all bears die upon impact, she noted, saying that internal bleeding and less obvious injuries can kill bears that manage to walk away from vehicular accidents. However, many bears do heal from their injuries and survive.

Olfenbuttel said that bear broken bones can mend in a variety of ways. Without casts to set bones, sometimes she has seen bears with broken leg bones “walking just fine. It’s just stiff, because of how (the leg) healed.” Other bears, she says, have broken limb bones that “didn’t heal, and because the bone was completely broken, the only thing connecting below the break and above the break is skin, and eventually, to be honest, they will lose that lower part and it will heal over.”

Olfenbuttel noted that many of her colleagues in Florida, which is another area in which “there’s quite a bit of roadkill collisions,” have spoken to her about similar injuries and bears that may lose part of a leg in the process of time after a collision. Ultimately, Olfenbuttel said that bears “are remarkable healers.”

Veterinarian Dr. Lee Beckworth from the Ashe Animal Clinic in Jefferson described what mechanisms bears have to survive injuries such as car accidents.

“It really depends on the size of the bear and the speed of the car,” Beckworth said, that determine what kinds of general internal injuries or broken bones a bear receives from a collision. Considering these injuries, Beckworth highlighted that there are some biological attributes that help bears survive this kind of trauma, in particular certain properties of bears’ saliva, as with licking their wounds, bears are able to keep open wounds clean and avoid infection. A bear is more likely to keep clean and avoid infection with an injury to a distal extremity compared to areas of the body it cannot lick, such as the chest or back. He echoes Olfenbuttel’s sentiment that bears have “a tremendous ability to survive injury.”

Yet, Beckworth is hesitant to agree with Olfenbuttel’s explanation that this quantity of bears with missing legs identified by Help Asheville Bears is because of car collisions. While he does not study bears as specifically as Olfenbuttel does, he has doubts and theorizes that only losing the lower portion of a leg would be unlikely.

Beckworth is not alone in his conclusion. Help Asheville Bears sent their documented cases as of late 2019, including descriptions, images and videos of three-legged bears to a group of veteran experts for review. These experts included Tim Manley, a wildlife biologist and Grizzly Bear specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks with 39 years of service; Erik Wenum, wildlife biologist/bear and lion conflict specialist/Grizzly Bear TREND trapping and monitoring program with FWP, also with 30 years of service; and Brian Sommers, wildlife biologist/criminal investigator/wildlife human attack response team leader and Instructor with FWP, with 34 years of service.

In a Nov. 5, 2019, letter, Sommers wrote: “All three of us agree that ‘these are not bears that have been hit by vehicles.’” He continued, stating that, “given the fact that you have approximately 12-plus bears in a 25-50 square mile area showing the same type of leg loss, it is very apparent that you have someone in the area that is baiting or attracting the bears in and then using snares to try and trap or capture the bears.”

Sommers offered his opinion on what he believes are the likeliest causes of injury.

“More than likely they are using 1/8-inch cable that clamps down tight on the leg and they are probably using some sort of ground/hole and/or bucket type set that throws or puts the snare high up on the leg,” Sommers stated. “The bear then breaks the cable or gets free somehow and the snare is still attached tightly to the leg. Given time, the leg below the snare will die and fall off and the wound will heal over.”

Despite the group’s analysis that snares are most likely the cause of injury, they recommend that several of the bears should be x-rayed to look at how the wound has healed where the leg was taken off and that “without getting hands on the bears, there is really no way to know for certain what is or has taken place regarding the loss of a leg.”

Ultimately, Sommers indicated the bears that are missing legs now create, in his words, “a management/conflict/safety risk to the public since they are no longer functioning at full capacity, and in order to survive they will become more dependent on other food sources that are easier for them to obtain, such as garbage, fruit, etc.”

Hunting Regulations

Christian Gardner operates Appalachian Holler Hunters, a hunting group working to educate people about proper hunting practices through their online platform. With the growing black bear population, Gardner says some hunters have been pushing for an additional bear tag. Each season, hunters are allocated one tag to harvest a single bear. However, with the increase in bears, Gardner said many are hoping to increase the number of bears one can harvest from one to two. He adds that he believes there is an issue of bears being run over by cars and of poaching.

There are those who “portray people for trapping bears, when actually it’s more or less from car accidents and a handful of other things,” Gardner said, noting that the bear injuries linked to poaching mischaracterize bear hunters.

While Gardner says he doesn’t know of any poaching cases personally, he has heard of people during vacations who have a bear nuisance.

“There’s really not a whole lot that can be done for it, they’ll go out and shoot them off their back porch,” Gardner said. “Not properly harvesting a black bear more or less causes health problems for the bear and potentially puts other people in danger in highly populated areas.”

Gardner believes education is key in the cases to prevent accidental violations of bear hunting laws.

Benny Vance, the president of the Daniel Boone Bear Club, a bear hunting club in Newland, explained that his organization also emphasizes the importance of hunting education and following state guidelines.

“The thing about bear hunting is that you’ve probably been born into that — a lot of people don’t understand many aspects of it. It’s more of a heritage thing,” Vance said.

Vance shared that he has not encountered tourists or people unfamiliar with bear regulations poaching bears.

“Most bear hunters are local and stay local,” he said. Vance does travel to coastal North Carolina to hunt with family on trips, and makes an important distinction about different bear regulations.

“Over there it is private land, and you’re under the restrictions of private land,” he clarifies, in comparison to Western North Carolina, where there is far more government regulated lands.

Vance and his group hunt in large groups, running dogs together, sometimes with up to 15 or 20 people, but he says that his group is getting older, and carrying the bear out of the woods is a more arduous task due to their age.

“Sometimes we harvest a bear at 7 o’clock in the morning and it could take us until dark to get that bear to the road or to a location where we can get it loaded into a vehicle,” Vance said.

If the bear is too difficult to take out of the woods, Vance says his group will process the bear in the woods, a process that includes cutting the meat, cleaning the bear in the woods and carrying it out.

“We use the whole bear,” Vance said, stating that even in these scenarios his group prioritizes leaving no waste.

Daniel Boone Bear Club also contributes to tracking information about the local bears, according to Vance, who said that the club “mandates that we get a tooth from every bear, and I’m responsible for turning it into the local biologist, because the data and studies that they do is essential for the bears because we do not want to over-harvest.”

“I’m going to be perfectly honest. There probably are (poachers). There probably are some,” Vance said. “I’m not going to say that there’s not. But in my experience with it, I think probably in the past there were more than there are now, because the population of bears is really really growing, and people don’t have to go to the means they used to. I’m sure there are isolated incidents, but most true groups of bear hunters are straight up.”

Moreover, Vance said bear hunting in terms of quantity is a numbers game.

“You’ve got 10 or 12 or 15 people in these groups, and not everybody’s going to kill a bear,” Vance said. “You’re lucky in a group of 16 to 20 if you harvest four or five bears a year. To me, that’s lucky.”

Vance also expressed his disagreement with those who opt to use illegal trapping methods.

“I don’t know why anybody would want to do that,” Vance explained. “I guess it’s just my sport,” stating that there would be “no sport to me whatsoever” in poaching by using traps.

Poaching investigations

Alex Williams of Help Asheville Bears says that there are multiple incentives for poaching. He noted the most extreme case: the illegal sale of bear paws and gallbladders. Bear gallbladders, according to Alex, are highly valued wildlife parts, especially in Asia due to their use in homeopathic medicines said to serve as anything from aphrodisiacs to treatments for the symptoms of COVID-19.

Bear bile, the content of a bear’s gallbladder, can be an expensive commodity abroad. According to a May 2013 New York Times article entitled, “Folk Remedy Extracted From Captive Bears Stirs Furor in China,” bear bile can sell for as much as $24,000 a kilogram (roughly 2.2 pounds), which is “roughly half the price of gold.” The Animal Legal & Historical Center at Michigan State University places the price of bear bile, according to a 2008 report, at approximately $185 per pound in China, with an average wild bear gallbladder selling for about $10,000 in South Korea.

While this may be more rare in the United States, a Charlotte Observer report published May 3, 2019, detailed how a North Carolina woman admitted to illegally buying and selling ginseng and black bear gallbladders in the North Carolina mountains to sell in Georgia. The report states that the woman “acknowledged in a court filing signed by her lawyer” a purchase of “13 bear gallbladders in Franklin, N.C., for $5,200 or $400 each, and selling one of them for $1,000.” An undercover agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, according to the report, began arranging purchases with the suspect in 2014.

This is not the first case of federal or state wildlife organizations encountering poaching in North Carolina. A multi-agency infiltration into bear poaching circles in the early 2010s, code name “Operation Something Bruin,” was conducted for four years by the NC Wildlife Commission with the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service on the federal level, and with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency at the state level, according to a NC Wildlife Commission press release dated Oct. 15, 2013. According to media reports, the operation initiated on Feb. 27, 2013, involved undercover agents spending years gaining trust and infiltrating bear hunting groups and revealed “nearly 1,000 wildlife crimes’’ that included illegally baiting bears, even on public lands and bear sanctuaries within national forests, and more. Media reports on June 15, 2015, noted that critics of the operation accused the agencies of utilizing investigative tactics that “were neither legal nor ethical.”

Help Asheville Bears and the Poacher Strike Force, the latter of which was formed in January 2021, have yet to secure any arrests in North Carolina for poaching. The two groups offer cash rewards for tips about poaching cases, and one such tip resulted in the arrest of a man who poached three cubs in West Virginia. In a Jan. 7 Facebook post, Help Asheville Bears thanked an anonymous tipster for lending information that led to the arrest of the West Virginia poacher and thanked lead investigator officer Josh Prickett and Lieutenant Brad McDougle with the West Virginia Natural Resources Police for their response. The West Virginia Natural Resources Police posted images on their Facebook page of three bear cub skins and other illegal items found in the poacher’s residency during their search.

Investigations of possible poaching cases in North Carolina are conducted by officers of NCWRC. Officer Brody Green of the North Carolina Wildlife Commission, whose patrol covers Watauga, Wilkes and Alexander counties, said that he has never had any reports or found any evidence of traps in his region. In the case of bears, Green says he has responded to a bear missing a paw that was getting close to humans.

“I saw the bear one time from a distance, but when I tried to get closer to see if it was too injured to continue surviving, the bear ran away from me,” Green said. The bear, he says, appeared healthy enough to survive on its own, and while he and the other wildlife officers can try to assess the situation, Green notes that “bears are super elusive.”

Green added that reports of illegal activity regarding deer hunting and trout fishing are more common in his area of purview, but that he does occasionally receive tips about bears, usually in reference to “a season violation, somebody shooting one after legal shooting hours or outside of the season.” While Green says he has made arrests in his time as a wildlife officer, he says that there are not “a ton” of reports about illegal activities in bear hunting because, echoing Gardner and Vance, bear hunters in the area “do a pretty good job at following the rules.”

Wisniewski from the Poacher Strike Force said that the three-legged bears’ injuries are too similar to be accidents, and are continuing to “show up with a ton of frequency.”

“We have all hunted and fished for a lot of years and seen a lot of animals killed on the road,” Wisniewski said of he and his hunting companions, but concluded that “the consistency in the injuries” suggest that “it is very unlikely they are all from car strikes with no other injuries.” While snares are illegal to use in North Carolina, they are readily accessible to be bought through online retailers like Amazon, according to Wisniewski.

Wisniewski contends that Poacher Strike Force members have “coincidentally” purchased them from the online purchasing site and sent them to their places of business, be it “for your bar or your place at home where everybody sits and has chit chat over the fireplace.” Traps are only illegal to use and not to possess, should one want to purchase one for an intention such as decoration.

Wisniewski explained that PSF is currently struggling to bring tips from informants to concrete evidence and consequences.

“We know of three to four groups, from informants and other wildlife officers and people up there (in Asheville). We know who they are, quite frankly where they live, a fairly small area where they operate,” Wisniewski said.

As the organization progresses, Wisniewski said that the Poacher Strike Force and Help Asheville Bears intend to confirm tips and “prove all we have heard, beyond somebody just saying it.”

The tips Help Asheville Bears and the Poacher Strike Force receive cover everything from bears being caught by snares with illegal leg holds to, according to Wisniewski, “dogs being run for more than just training.” He added that NCWRC officers are “convinced we are on to some of the right groups.” When hunters are allowed to start running their dogs and are getting prepared for bear hunting season starting in July and August, Wisniewski assured that the Poacher Strike Force will begin again to look to follow and verify leads from informants.

To report tips regarding poaching in North Carolina, NCWRC has an established tip line at 1 (855) WILDTIP. Tips can also be reported to HAB at https://helpashevillebears.org/.

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Marisa Mecke is a Report For America corps member for Mountain Times Publications. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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