Bear shot, two of three cubs rescued in Maggie

By DeeAnna Haney | Jun 03, 2014

MAGGIE VALLEY — Two bear cubs were rescued by wildlife officers and biologists Monday after a Maggie Valley resident shot and killed the mother in his back yard. A third cub has not yet been found.

Jim Cooper, 71, said he shot the mother bear twice as she was charging him when he went outside early that morning. It wasn't until after he shot her that he realized there were three cubs nearby.

He and his wife, who have a summer home in the Sheepback Mountain community, arrived at their mountain home from North Florida last Thursday. Cooper placed bird feeders in the yard the following day, as he is an avid bird watcher.

Around 3:30 a.m. Monday, Cooper's wife heard something in the yard and they noticed a female bear, called a sow, attempting to eat bird seed from one of the feeders. When he opened the door, the bear ran away.

She returned about an hour later when Cooper found the bear on the porch attempting to reach the water in the hummingbird feeder. When he opened the door, she jumped over the porch and ran away again.

Around daybreak, Cooper said he heard a loud screeching. He investigated and saw the bear on the other side of the creek. Believing the bear had attacked an animal, he grabbed a gun and went outside to see the bear quickly running toward him. Fearing an attack, Cooper shot the bear twice and killed her less than 10 yards away from him where he was standing just several feet away from his front porch.

It wasn't until the bear was dead that he realized the reason for her aggression — three small bear cubs were standing nearby and then scampered up a nearby tree.

"She would never have charged me if it weren't for the babies," Cooper said.

He called someone who he thought would be interested in using the bear meat and the carcass was hauled away. Concerned neighbors were the ones to call police and then biologists and wildlife officers were there shortly thereafter to investigate the incident and decide how to rescue the cubs.

Rescuing bear cubs

As the hours went by, the cubs made their way higher up the tree and sat looking down at the wildlife biologists, officers, fire fighters and onlookers who stood about 40 feet below.

Baiting and trapping the cubs was out of the question because they were too young to even eat solid food, said Mike Carraway, a district biologist with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission.

The cubs, which weighed no more than 10 pounds each, he suspected, were likely born this past winter and were not yet weaned. If left to the wild without a food source, the cubs would not survive on their own for more than a week, Carraway said.

The only option was to attempt to get someone to climb the tree above the bears and scare them enough to possibly fall out of the tree or climb down. After exhausting a few options, a crew from Carolina Crane and Tree, a Waynesville company, came to the rescue.

Company owner Hap Queen and Rocky Sanford quickly scaled the tree, getting close enough to the cubs to make them move to an outer limb.

Without knowing how the cubs would react, the biologists stood below the tree holding open a tarpaulin in case they fell. But when the humans got too close for comfort, the cubs scampered down the tree. One of them quickly ran away and the other two were caught and placed in a cage.

Bear sightings increasing

Cooper told Sgt. Andrew Helton with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission this isn't the first time he's seen a bear on his property. Last year, a male bear, also known as a boar, became a frequent and destructive visitor.

The bear destroyed his bird feeders and was even found on his porch. Fearing for his family's safety, Cooper called the Wildlife Resources Commission, but said he was told there were not enough resources for an officer to come trap the bear. He was advised to remove the bird seed.

To address the situation, Cooper placed motion sensored lights in the yard, which seemed to keep the bear at bay for a while. But he returned a few times before disappearing.

Cooper said he was only defending himself against the mother bear and he fears what could have happened if his wife, who is recovering from major surgery, had been out in the yard instead of him.

He believes the Wildlife Resources Commission needs more funding to be able to capture and relocate bears who show up in residential areas.

"They need funding so people like me can be protected because their job is to protect people and the wildlife," he said.

Sgt. Andrew Helton with the Commission, said trapping every bear that is sighted in the 12-county district would be impossible.

The bear population is growing at a rate of about 6 percent each year and in Western North Carolina, they are most commonly seen from June to August. Biologists and officers currently field between 10 and 20 calls a day about bear sightings across the district.

When acorns begin to fall in September and October, bears are more likely to head back to the woods. Until then, though, this won't be the last bear sighting in Haywood County, and setting a trap for every bear is not possible for law enforcement.

"There is no place remote enough to trap them and take them out to where they won't be close to civilization," Helton said.

If a bear is too close for comfort on private property, the best solution is to remove the food source the bear is seeking. In Cooper's case, the bears were eating bird seed in the yard.

But Cooper believes he shouldn't have to choose between his passion of bird watching and keeping himself and his wife safe. He plans to keep the bird feeders in the yard.

"I want to be able to enjoy what I pay money to enjoy," Cooper said.

The investigation in the case continues as officers try to determine whether the killing was warranted. Wildlife officers now have possession of the dead mother bear.

"There was absolutely no reason for him to have shot that bear," Carraway said, claiming that Cooper didn't have to go outside knowing the bear was there.

"If there wasn't a bird feeder and food involved and the bear was trying to get into the house, it would have been OK. But he put himself in the position where she was defending her cubs," he said.

However, people have the right to protect themselves on their own property, Helton pointed out. At this time, the investigation is ongoing.

In the meantime, the cubs will be bottle fed for the next couple of months and then rehabilitated with the hope of releasing them back into the wild when they are old enough, Carraway said.