The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Limbless bears break hearts but donuts may be worse than leg traps

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83644084 179844060054345 4751008813274890240 n 705x550Courtesy of Help Asheville Bears 

By any other name: From poaching to cars and traps, black bears face diverse human threats in Southern Appalachians 

Activists and state agencies agree bear poaching is an age-old problem in the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, but they diverge when it comes to some key aspects of the crime and its prevention.

The non-profit Help Asheville Bears is raising awareness of threats to bears on both sides of the state lines and getting coverage on local media outlets like this piece on Knoxville-based WBIR. Its message has also appeared on a billboard in Sevierville. The Arden, N.C.-based group offers a tip line, rewards and also supports what could be described as a self-styled anti-poaching militia.

“Bear poaching is a big deal. It happens anywhere where there are bears,” said Jody Williams, the founder of Help Asheville Bears, which is responding to what its members see as an increasing threat to the very symbol of wild Southern Appalachia. HAB is especially concerned about trapping that Williams said has left limbless bears limping throughout the mountains.

The group is demanding Amazon quit selling leg-snare traps with a petition on Change.org that has gotten more than 220,000 signatures.

A video at the top of the page shows images and footage of bears with missing limbs as sad flute music plays.

“We currently follow 12 cases of bears missing limbs in a 25 mile radius of the Asheville area and 15 missing limbs within 90 miles of Asheville,” according to the Help Asheville Bears website.

“Help Asheville Bears intends to help prevent illegal bear trapping in the South Asheville and Arden areas, where there has been much photographic evidence of illegal trapping, especially bears missing limbs.”

Here is an example of a trap available for sale on Amazon.

The use of leg traps in the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina area is a focus for Help Asheville Bears. Williams cites instances of various bears missing legs seen in the Great Smoky Mountains and Asheville areas.

The missing legs, he said, are the result of trapping. He said a forensic animal pathologist had figured out the size of the snares and an anonymous informant had given them information, which the group continues to share on its Facebook page.

Dan Gibbs, black bear program leader with Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, however, has said focusing on leg traps is a misguided approach to poaching prevention and he has never heard of any such bears with missing limbs in his 25-year career. He also said leg traps were an unlikely tool for poachers to use.

“People that are poaching typically aren’t going to be interested in doing a lot of work,” he said in reference to traps. Regarding poaching in general, he said violations often just involve hunting black bears outside of season. 

Tennessee state wildlife officers issued about 93 citations since 2019 related to bears in East Tennessee.

“This whole idea, this trapping thing, doesn’t need any more attention,” he said. “That’s not the real issue. The issue is the poaching in general.”

He said most poachers often just put out bait for the bears, a practice which is illegal in Tennessee, before shooting them. 

Recorded Tennessee bear hunting-related statistics showed two arrests between 2019 and this year for “use of bait, pitfalls and certain other devices.” These were, however, just two of many bear hunting arrests in those years, including some involving failure to obtain licenses or to take hunting education courses. Some violations are just listed as “illegal taking possession, destruction of wildlife” under a different law and other even involving just hunting near roads or dwellings.

Some prominent takedowns of poacher operations do occur, such as in the case of two men convicted of poaching bears with hanging bags of sweets and meat and trapping the animals in a large steel cage (not a leg trap) in Cherokee National Forest near Tellico Plains in 2019.  

Andrew Helton, a captain with North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission law enforcement division, also said he did not think that poachers used leg traps with any great regularity. They are dangerous to use and there are few if any incidents directly involving them.

“None of my officers have seen a leg-hold trap set for a bear,” he said.

But he did acknowledge other illegal poaching methods. Like Gibbs, he said poaching with bait is an ongoing problem. Unlike in Tennessee, in North Carolina the use of bait for bears is legal if it is an unprocessed food like apples. Helton, however, said some people in North Carolina use donuts and other processed items.

“It does go on, and our officers take it very seriously,” he said of poaching in the Smoky Mountains area.

 Helton, however, said he has also seen bears with missing limbs, including a sow near The Cliffs development in Asheville. But he cited a North Carolina State survey that tracked bears with missing limbs and said sightings of such bears in general were “not very common.”

“It would be nice if we could document those bears and mark those bears, but we just don’t know,” he said regarding the bears with missing limbs. “But we have no concrete evidence that it’s due to someone setting these huge foot steel traps within the (Asheville) city limits.”

Indeed, he said that bears in such traps would draw attention to themselves, “moaning and groaning and tearing down trees.”

“Surely we’d get a report on that, but we’ve yet to see anything like that.”

Helton said there were other reasons for bears to lose limbs in the Asheville area and elsewhere. He said some bears could get their paws hung up on dumpsters or lose them in fights with dogs, or natural hazards. Helton noted collisions with vehicles would be “the most likely” cause of such injuries. 

Williams called the idea of traffic accidents cutting off limbs in the manner his group had seen “asinine.” 

Helton said the most common time for collisions with bears was between May and August and the highest mortality rate to bears in Buncombe County was due to vehicles. He also urged people in black bear country to be Bearwise and not feed bears, properly store trash, and not put up bird feeders.

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Help Asheville Bears doesn’t limit its citizen-based anti-poaching efforts to petitions. It promotes a group called Poacher Strike Force, which describes itself on its website as “a group of elite military personnel, law enforcement investigators, and professional woodsmen who have come together to stop poachers, with the support of a large reward and bounty system in conjunction with Help Asheville Bears.”

The group on its website and on social media claims several successful anti-poaching operations; many of them occurred out of state and involved animals other than bears such as sea turtles.

Every effort counts.

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