Black bears have reportedly been active almost every night in Cumberland recently, coming out of the mountains to look for food during a time of year when the usual cold temperatures would keep them in their dens.
Cumberland Police Sgt. Silas Whitehead said black bear complaints were involving more and more of his department's time. Patrols have increased in areas like Springfield, Kingdom Come Drive, Fairchild Street, Pride Terrace and parts of New York Section, where bear sightings are frequent. The normal routine for CPD officers has also expanded to include initiating black bear management techniques such as hazing, which is most often enforced by Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife game wardens and Kingdom Come State Park rangers.
But now that the bears are coming out of the woods and are on the prowl within city limits, Whitehead is increasingly concerned about the safety of residents.
"When they see the bears out, it scares people," Whitehead said. "The resurgence has been good for this area. I know I enjoy seeing them, but they belong in the wild, not in our neighborhoods, in our back yards, in our playgrounds, on our city streets and near our businesses."
An area of particular concern for the Cumberland Police Department, but for Fish and Wildlife biologists, too, is the Cumberland Manor apartment complex on Mastin Drive. Located just below Kingdom Come State Park, where the animals have been known to roam, the apartment complex has become a hotbed for black bear activity because of its close proximity to the park and its large dumpsters that provide opportunities for easy meals.
The apartment complex has also become the new site for "black bear watching," an activity that was once popular at Kingdom Come State Park. Now that the bears are less confined to the forests and are rummaging through neighborhoods looking for food, "black bear watching" has become more residential. What makes that problematic, according to Whitehead, is that people's safety is more at risk.
"All of this is going on where people live, not up in the mountains," he said. "And we know that people are stacking the dumpsters to lure the bears so they can see them, but that just places the people who are living here more in danger as the bears continue to get use to the easy food source."
Whitehead was on site at the apartment complex for several nights during the warm spell that recently hit Harlan County, which has caused the bears to be more active than usual. On Friday night, Whitehead saw the most bears he's ever encountered at the apartment complex. He shined a flashlight on one of the complex's dumpsters that has yet to be bearproofed. There were cartons of doughnuts and other pastries as well as whole hams and chickens.
"That's why they come," he said. "The one thing that I'd like to get across is that people need to stop feeding the bears. They're here, and they can be seen without people luring them with food. It's unhealthy for the bears in the long run, and, point-blank, somebody's going to get hurt."
In the past couple of nights, residents were observed running to and from the dumpsters with their garbage. They would hastily pitch the garbage bags into the bins, then race back to their apartments. One woman said residents were becoming too fearful to allow their children to use the complex's playground. On Friday night, three bears could be seen sauntering through the swingsets.
One woman's alarm was evident after she exited her apartment with a trash bag in hand to find a good-sized bear standing on top of the dumpster. She immediately ran inside. And in the midst of residents having to take extra precautions and limiting themselves more to the indoors, traffic is up at the complex with lines of motorists who drive from dumpster to dumpster just to see the rummaging animals.
"We've had reports of the bears walking along apartment breezeways," Whitehead said. "That's just getting too close."
Joyce Browning, who is the manager at Cumberland Manor, confirmed that chain link fences will be installed this week around the complex's three dumpsters. She said black bear activity has been a matter of great concern for property owners as well as the residents for the last couple of years.
"We know the bears have been getting too close to the apartments," Browning said. "They've been seen at apartment windows, and paw prints have been left on window panes. My biggest concern is once we place fences around the dumpsters, will that drive them indoors looking for food? We've done all we can do to remedy the problem. We can't post a fence around the entire complex."
Browning has even posted "No Loitering" signs within the complex and confirmed that both Cumberland police and Fish and Wildlife game wardens can and will demand non-residents to leave the premises.
Harlan County's KDFW game warden, Shane Amburgey, is called to Cumberland Manor weekly and patrols heavily on Mastin Drive. He agreed the matter is serious. Undercover patrols have revealed alarming behavior, and now people are coming to Amburgey with videotape that shows people feeding the bears.
"It is illegal to spot and feed wildlife," Amburgey said. "If people are caught spotlighting the bears, they can be fined $150 plus court costs. If caught directly or indirectly feeding the bears, people can be fined up to $500."
Steven Dobey, who heads up Fish and Wildlife's black bear project, said the recent increase in activity was caused by a combination of the warm weather and the continued problem of illegal feeding.
"It all comes down to personal responsibility," Dobey said. "Black bears are opportunity eaters, and they're going to go where the food is easily accessible, especially where there's a buffet spread at these dumpsters. For people living in a high bear density area, steps should be taken to keep them from becoming habituated to human food."
Dobey has researched black bears in such places as Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains, as well as Louisiana, Georgia and Florida. In these places, he pointed out, problems with illegal feeding was not a common occurrence. If such behaviors continue in the Tri-City area, Dobey said, the natural resurgence of the black bear repopulation could be impacted.
Last September, a 430-pound "trophy" black bear had to be euthanized after attempting to swipe food from a Cumberland Manor resident.
"A situation is being created where people could get hurt," Dobey said. "And the illegal feeding also harms the bears. If people are happy the bears are present, and enjoy seeing them, then they should take appropriate measures to make sure they continue to thrive in the area, and that means putting a stop to human food sources. Learning to properly coexist is crucial."