COLUMBIA -- Once confined to the mountains and remote coastal swamps, black bears are being spotted in parts of South Carolina for the first time in generations.
Wildlife managers and scientists say black bears not only are increasing their territory but are growing in numbers in the Palmetto State.
"They're everywhere," said Skip Still, a state biologist who keeps bear statistics.
Since 2004, people have encountered bears in 36 of the state's 46 counties, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. In contrast, people in only a handful of counties reported seeing bears in 2004.
The number of black bears declined after European settlers arrived in South Carolina. The settlers cleared land and hunted the animals as pests.
Now, maturing forests provide better habitat for bears, which thrive in woodlands filled with nuts and berries, experts say.
SEEING THE NUMBERS RISE
The shy bruins have been spotted most often in Upstate counties just east and south of South Carolina's mountains, an area known for bears.
The DNR confirmed reports of a bear in a steakhouse parking lot near Anderson about two years ago.
Reported bear sightings in Anderson County jumped from two in 2004 to 23 this year, DNR statistics show. In Spartanburg County, the number rose from none in 2004 to 57 so far this year, according to DNR statistics.
But sightings aren't just confined to the Upstate. Earlier this year, Lexington County residents videotaped a small black bear near Gilbert.
State and federal wildlife experts say all of the reported sightings they receive, plus recent research, suggest an increase in the bear population.
Two years ago, the DNR revised its population estimates of South Carolina bears to about 1,200 from several hundred. It based part of its revision on bear surveys.
Black bears, which can weigh up to 600 pounds in South Carolina, aren't typically aggressive -- no one has been injured in the state by a bear in recorded history -- but people should be wary when they see one, agency officials say. Experts advise people who encounter a bear to back slowly away from the animal. More than likely, the bear will leave.
The DNR discourages the use of things, such as open garbage cans, that attract the animals to areas populated by humans. DNR officials also encourage people not to feed bears. Occasionally, the agency will kill bears that are considered dangerous.
"If you take away the enticements that attract black bears, such as garbage cans, bird feeders, pet food, barbecue grills, compost piles and similar things, then you will likely not have problems with black bears," DNR wildlife biologist Deana Ruth said.
Frank Van Manen, a highly regarded bear biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said parts of the Southeast are seeing increases in black bear populations.
"If you look at the bigger picture, it is fair to say that for the last 20 years, and especially the last decade, we've seen a very definite increase in range, and with it, also an increase in numbers," Van Manen said.
Bears may be moving into new territory because their traditional home counties -- Pickens, Oconee, Horry and Georgetown -- are getting too crowded with bears, biologists say. When too many of the animals populate one area, younger ones will move away.
Recent evidence shows bears are reproducing in more counties, as well. At least nine counties now have reproducing populations, compared to about five a decade ago.
South Carolina allows a two-week hunting season for black bears in the mountains at the end of October each year.
But Still said there appear to be enough bears to withstand hunting pressures.
This year, hunters killed 48 bears, just 10 off the state record set in 2007.