ASHEVILLE, N.C. - Huge metal containers are helping researchers figure out what to do about black bears showing up in urban areas.
Charlene Noblett's son volunteered to have one set up in his backyard near Asheville, after spotting black bears in the area. The researchers left a honey bun to entice the bears.
"When they're not behind a cage I don't get that close. I had one at my home that took down my bird feeder the night before last,” Noblett said.
Researchers tranquilize the trapped bears, then weigh and measure them. They also attach GPS collars to track the animals' movement. As state biologists worked with two yearlings, the mother bear began moving inside her trap.
Biologists believe this short separation will give them a long-term understanding of how bears live when they move into populated areas.
"We have basic questions like do they have more cubs than other bears? Are they healthier? Are they bigger and are they less wary of people? Those are some of the questions we'd like to answer with this study,” said biologist Coleen Olfenbuttel.
Researchers hope to put GPS collars on 40 bears this summer. The collars, which eventually fall off, let researchers know whether the bears are living in neighborhoods and how close they are to populated areas.
"A lot of the bears we've put collars on we're actually captured in neighborhoods right in people's yards,” said Mike Carraway with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
One thing they've noticed is that bears captured in populated areas are much bigger than the ones in the wild. A 570-pound bear was trapped just outside the Asheville city limits.
"They're getting really good food sources in town. It may be garbage. It may be bird feeders. It may be people feeding bears on purpose. But it is pretty clear the bears in and around town are getting lots of good food to eat,” Carraway said.
The problem has gotten so bad, some towns have started requiring residents to wait until pickup day to take out their trash.
More communities may need to start taking those measures.
North Carolina's bear population was just 1,500 in 1970. Today, it's nearly 20,000.
That means more encounters with humans, but experts insist attacks are extremely rare and no one in the state has ever been killed by a bear.
"We get some complaints about bears, but there are bears living among us right now and for the most part they don't cause a lot of problems,” Carraway said.
"We all think we know a lot about bears but we still have a lot to learn. In the end, we hope to get answers to help us better manage these bears and better educate the public on what to do to avoid conflict,” Olfenbuttel said.