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The Assembly is a digital magazine about the people, institutions, and ideas that shape North Carolina. Founded in 2021, we feature interesting, deeply reported, nuanced stories about our state. 

We’re telling big stories and giving our journalists space to be ambitious. We want everything published at The Assembly to surprise, inform, and leave you with a better understanding than when you started.

A black bear lay whimpering at Robert Buchsbaum’s feet, buckshot pellets buried in her guts. His wife Vickie screamed, and his dog howled, then everything happened fast. He reached for his 12-gauge shotgun, still loaded from target practice, and raced out the door, stopping about 30 feet from the bear. 

He had imagined this scenario over the past few months, wondering how he might perform under pressure, and to his surprise he calmly aimed, almost without thinking, and fired. The bear ran, and Buchsbaum, believing he’d missed his target, started back toward the house. 

As Buchsbaum saw it, bears were terrorizing Poplar Creek, a heavily wooded neighborhood in northeast Asheville situated near the Blue Ridge Parkway. Bears were more than a nuisance. They had become threatening, charging residents and breaking into homes. State wildlife managers, as a last resort, suggested that residents enlist hunters to haze the bears with dogs, but some felt the exercise was too cruel. 

The decision infuriated Buchsbaum, and he let the community know it in an angry email sent in the late spring of 2020, roughly a year before he shot the bear. “If my wife, my dog, or I [am] threatened by a bear, I will kill that bear without hesitation,” he wrote, adding that “its blood will be on your hands,” as if to warn his neighbors that he would not be held responsible. 

Asheville has bears, to be sure, and lots of them. They are known to their adorants as Peaches, Yogi, and Oakley, to name a few. Images of the Ursus americanus, or black bear, are seemingly everywhere around town: storefronts, billboards, T-shirts, and custom-made yard art. 

A sign for the Poplar Creek community in East Asheville. (Mike Belleme for The Assembly)

For some they evoke a sense of purity and innocence found in the surrounding mountain forests and streams. If you didn’t know any better, you might be forgiven for thinking the bear-crossing road signs are a prop for tourists—but then you just might catch sight of a bear strolling down the street. Crossing paths with one of these city dwellers can be awe-inspiring, if unsettling. Perhaps a bit of both. 

That distinction is useful for understanding how people in this growing city of nearly 100,000 feel about their bears. 

Nick Fields hadn’t given much thought to what living amongst bears would mean before relocating to Asheville from Wilmington in 2019, but he soon found out when a bear ripped down his hummingbird feeder. “It was our dumb fault,” Fields said. After that, he judged most encounters as little more than fellow residents going about their daily business, he reckoned anything more substantial than that was usually self-inflicted. But mostly he enjoyed watching bears on the home security cameras he set up outside his house. 

Asheville native Sasha Haynes, however, was having none of it. “These new residents think it’s cute to see a bear,” said Haynes. “They’ve never heard a full-grown bear roar—it’s amazing, and it’s terrifying.” 

Bears, Haynes says, were a rarity in Poplar Creek until about a decade ago. After the novelty wore off, they could still be easily shooed away by loud noises. But in 2020, as they emerged from their winter torpor, the bears were no longer a curiosity and far less timid. Haynes named a particularly troublesome bear “Mrs. Hateful.” “More than being a protective mama, she was over-the-top aggressive, dependent on birdseed and trash,” Haynes said. 

On the day of “the incident,” as residents now refer to the shooting, Fields happened to be watching his surveillance camera. “I see this bear walk out of the neighbor’s driveway across the street into my driveway and start walking up the sidewalk,” Fields said. 

The site where Vickie Buchsbaum and her dog came face to face with a black bear. (Mike Belleme for The Assembly)
The site where Robert Buchsbaum shot and killed a black bear in July 2021. (Mike Belleme for The Assembly)

Moments later, he heard a gunshot. Fields poked his head out the back door, where the bear lay on the ground, crying like a baby. “I saw Bobby walking away, and I screamed ‘Why did you do this?’” Fields recalled. He demanded that Buchsbaum end its suffering. 

For Buchsbaum, firing at a bear from a distance was one thing. Now he stood over a 250-pound mass of moaning fur. The gravity of the moment weighed on him, but he rationalized his actions as inevitable. He pointed the shotgun at her head and fired. 

When news about the killing got around Asheville, the court of public opinion was about as forgiving as the business end of Buchsbaum’s shotgun. He was cast alternately as a murderer or a tragicomic Elmer Fudd. 

“Everything he did was ignorant, stupid, and ridiculous,” said Jody Williams, founder of Help Asheville Bears, a local group whose mission is to raise awareness about poachers. “He’s living in the bear’s territory, not the other way around.” 

The gun Robert Buchsbaum used to shoot and kill the bear. (Mike Belleme for The Assembly)

Buchsbaum had stoked a long-simmering dispute over what it means to live alongside black bears and their place in an increasingly urban wilderness. “I was completely thrown off guard,” Buchsbaum said. He avoided social media, but still, he received angry voicemail messages assailing him as an ignorant and heartless fool. 

As far as he and his supporters were concerned, he had rushed to protect his wife, his dog, and the elderly neighbor in whose direction he insisted the bear was heading. “It was like bears mattered more than humans,” Haynes said of the online vitriol. 

One thing everyone seems to agree on: the dynamic between humans and bears has, in some neighborhoods, grown intolerable. 

A Changing Landscape

Around the world, habitat destruction and climate change are pushing wildlife to the brink of extinction. That’s the case in North Carolina, too—except when it comes to its black bears. 

They were never legally designated endangered here, but by the mid-1970s, scientists were alarmed at their rapidly dwindling numbers. Generations of logging and clear-cutting forests for agriculture in the state’s western mountains had devastated bear habitats. Although there are no exact figures, it is estimated that by 1980, fewer than 1,000 bears remained, and according to some wildlife experts at the time, the future was, if anything, bleaker still. 

“We should anticipate that Black Bears and humans will not be able to share habitat extensively in North Carolina in the future,” Roger Powell, a professor in the Department of Biology at North Carolina State concluded in 1987 as part of the state’s biological survey. 

A May 2010 file photo shows spectators watching as a young black bear runs loose in downtown Asheville, N.C. Police say the bear did not appear aggressive. (AP Photo/The Asheville Citizen-Times, Bill Sanders)

That was, evidently, not the case, as careful wildlife management and changing public opinion helped the bears’ resurgence. There are now around 20,000 bears in the state, making it the largest population on the East Coast. Their numbers are growing particularly fast in the mountains—to about 8,000 as of 2023, and climbing at a clip of 5 percent per year. Bear encounters in Asheville, from a few hundred in the early aughts to more than 1,500 these past few years, have become so commonplace as to seem “a bit like a bear safari,” joked Jennifer Strules, a Ph.D. student at North Carolina State University studying the city’s urban bear population. 

When N.C. State researchers first started studying Asheville’s urban and suburban bear population in 2014 to determine, among other things, if the city was producing bears or drawing them in from the surrounding mountain forests, they made several curious discoveries. It appears that a steady human diet is making the city’s female black bears bigger than their rural counterparts, and causing them to have cubs at an earlier age. But, ultimately, rather than being a source of growth, Asheville is more like a sink, and bears are inexorably drawn to its danger-filled environment. 

Where food is plentiful and denning options abound, as is the case in Asheville, bears can be a menace. Between 2020 and 2022, a third of the calls to the state Wildlife Resources Commission about bears came from Buncombe County. Some complained about garden variety nuisance bears rummaging through garbage cans and tipping over grills to lap up the leftover grease. A bear nestled under a porch or tucked away in a crawl space was also common. An especially brazen animal might get into a car or home—but in all of these run-ins the problem was more often people, not bears.

Bears are particularly troublesome in the autumn months when their need to fatten up for winter, known as hyperphagia, kicks into overdrive. During these months, people come face to snout with hungry bears, and the Wildlife Resources Commission fields some of the most frantic calls. 

Yet, even in these cases, trapping or euthanizing a bear is reserved for the most extreme situation such as when a bear threatens people. Relocation isn’t an option, either, because there are few remote-enough places left where bears won’t inevitably come into contact with people. And, besides, bears possess an extraordinary homing ability and would likely end up right where they started. 

Even as bears can appear threatening, it is also true that people are a hazard to bears. Dogs chase after them, and they are routinely pepper sprayed and occasionally shot when they get too close to homes. There were 220 collisions between bears and cars in 2021 alone; cubs are the most frequent victims. As the edges of Asheville sprawl into the wild bear habitat, encounters between humans and bears will only continue to rise.

The state’s Black Bear Management Plan gives the commission a framework for handling such things as human-bear interactions, education outreach programs, and hunting. One example of this was a proposal adopted in early 2022 to allow for permit hunting in three bear sanctuaries in the western part of the state, which was meant to control the burgeoning bear population in the region and reduce conflicts with people. 

It isn’t often that commission proposals garner much attention, but the fierce and immediate opposition to this one triggered a provision of the state administrative code requiring legislative review in Raleigh where, ironically enough, it died from a lack of interest. 

As the state wildlife commission figures out how to respond to human-bear conflicts, it sees education as the sharpest tool in its management toolbox. To that end, it introduced the BearWise program in 2021. Developed by black bear biologists, the initiative aims to prevent conflict by teaching people to adapt their behaviors and lifestyles to bear country.

A bear den in a wooded community in Asheville. (Mike Belleme for The Assembly)
Inside the bear den. (Mike Belleme for The Assembly)

If there is one thing that researchers can agree upon it is that Asheville is polarized over its bears. While some people love them, perhaps too much, others are frustrated at what they see as hands-off wildlife management that has created a situation of bears gone wild. 

The last time the state took measure of public sentiment nearly two decades ago, it found that a slim majority felt that perhaps there was still room for the bear population to grow. But even then, tolerance for bears was nearing its limits. When the state updates its bear management plan, a process set to begin in 2025, it will incorporate what was gleaned from the urban bear study in Asheville, and engage with a public whose perspectives may well have changed. 

Bears are curious and resourceful and possess greater intelligence than the most quick-witted dog. So it’s not surprising that they can and do adapt to life among humans. The more relevant question in Asheville is not how bears behave, but rather how people do. 

Divisions and Subdivisions

Buchsbaum is wiry-fit, with bushy white hair and a tightly wound energy reminiscent of Doc Brown in Back to the Future. He sold motorcycle protective gear in Philadelphia for decades before retiring to Asheville in 2018. The house he shares with Vickie, an artist and retired art professor, is decorated to reflect both her refined taste and his motorsports memorabilia.

Like many new Asheville residents, they marveled at the sight of a mama bear, cubs in tow, wandering unbothered through their neighborhood and frolicking in their yard. He enjoyed seeing bears as he biked along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. “They were fricking adorable,” Buchsbaum said. They became decidedly less adorable once they started breaking into homes. 

Residents of Poplar Creek, a subdivision of 40-plus houses, and their neighbors in the surrounding Riceville Forest kept one another abreast of the latest bear activity, especially as a pattern of troubling behavior emerged in the spring and summer of 2020.

One day that spring, Katie Perkins had a pot of beans on the stove, its aroma wafting through the garage to outside and proving an irresistible temptation for a bear that decided to come through the back porch and help himself. “We had a lever handle on the door that he opened and just started coming in,” her husband, Clint Bernard, told me. “[Katie] was five feet away, and she started yelling at him to get out of the kitchen, and he did.” 

This particular bear had a reputation for breaking into homes and cars, and because of his antics, a few kids in the neighborhood named him “Beggory.” The couple wasn’t terribly bothered by the event, after all, they had moved to Asheville from Valdese to be closer to nature. But they did swap out their lever door handle for knobs.

“He’s living in the bear’s territory, not the other way around.”

Jody Williams, founder of Help Asheville Bears

Not everyone takes the bears in stride. After one tore through the door to his screened porch and nearly got inside his house, Kevin Davies, the Poplar Creek homeowner’s association president, was furious. “I was to the point where it’s like, yeah, if a bear comes onto my property, it’s a dead bear,” he said. 

That was the tipping point for Davies. For others, including Buchsbaum, it was the day in early June 2020 when a female bear charged at a landscaper (though most agree the landscaper incited the situation when he got up close for a photo). It happened to be the same day Buchsbaum called the police out of concern for bear cubs he thought were stuck up a tree. As he watched from the deck of his home, the police advised him not to get involved, even when the situation escalated. 

On the street below, two toddlers were straggling behind their caretaker when the mama bear positioned herself, probably unintentionally, in the space between them. The standoff was brief but tense, ending when the mama bear retreated to look after her cubs. The children were never seriously threatened, according to Buschbaum, but the events of that day stayed with him. “They were far too close to an aggravated mama bear,” he said. 

As exasperating bear encounters carried on through the summer, Davies fumed against those who earlier that spring had opposed hazing the bears with hunting dogs and threatened to sue the board over it. “I’m like, ‘yeah, well, you haven’t had one in your house, you’d probably feel different if you had.’” 

The community was split over bears, with at least half openly questioning why nothing could be done to address the situation. Davies came to grips with the idea of living with them. “I have to keep my house closed, you feel like a prisoner in your own home, but you just can’t go discharging a weapon.”

Horns and pepper spray usually did the trick, but with some bears, these tools were proving less effective. District biologist Justin McVey predicted that if nothing changed in Poplar Creek someone would eventually kill a bear. 

Air horns Robert and Vickie Buchsbaum use to scare off bears. (Mike Belleme for The Assembly)
The statue by the Buchsbaum’s door wears a bear whistle. (Mike Belleme for The Assembly)

It wasn’t long after that Buschbaum bought a shotgun, something that was unthinkable to him a few years prior. He taught himself to load it by watching YouTube videos, and his neighbor, an avid hunter, had him practice shooting at targets cut to the shape of bears, pointing out the location of the animal’s vital organs. His gun enthusiast buddies back in Philly laughed when he told them, and were even more surprised when he informed them that he was a crack shot.

“I was still terrified of the goddamn thing,” Buchsbaum said of the gun. 

Defense and Self-Defense

The task of educating Buncombe County residents about bears falls, in large part, to state wildlife biologist Ashley Hobbs. She teaches the gospel of BearWise, a program of dos and don’ts to coexisting with bears.

First introduced across the Southeast in 2018, the now national program might be summarized as limiting anything that could attract bears, and, in the event that fails, what to do should you come face to face with one. She delivers the message in town halls, libraries, and community centers, though just about any place will suffice.

During an event last October in Black Mountain, a small town a dozen miles east of Asheville, Hobbs explained that bears are ravenous before winter, ingesting up to 25,000 calories per day. Attendees seemed more interested in sharing their own stories of dumpster-diving bears. “Our messaging has been fine-tuned so that it’s effective,” Hobbs said, “but it’s still an uphill battle to reach everyone.” One need look no further back than August 2022, when a visitor was caught on camera feeding a bear in front of the BearWise sign in an Asheville neighborhood. 

Ashley Hobbs, a biologist at the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, poses for a portrait near her home in Asheville. (Mike Belleme for The Assembly)

McVey is most often the one out in the field dealing with these routine inconveniences—and occasionally more bizarre ones, like the time he was summoned to the UNC-Asheville campus to separate mating bears. “They were literally up against a classroom window,” McVey said.

A more typical call might require that he stand his ground against a charging bear or crawl under a house to chase one out with pepper spray and a pellet gun. Last fall I got to observe McVey at work. He pepper sprayed a bear burrowed under a home just behind the Governor’s Western Residence. The bear tumbled down the mountain side and, moments later, a teary-eyed McVey resurfaced.

In the spring and well into the summer of 2020 complaints from anxious Poplar Creek residents poured into the Commission office. It was the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, and watching bears had become a respite from the isolation for some residents. Hobbs gave a virtual presentation in May to residents, running through the usual admonishments to secure trash and remove bird feeders. 

Hobbs and McVey also made repeated visits to the neighborhood hoping to pinpoint the source of the problem. They searched, without success, for an obvious attractant, such as peanuts left in a yard for bears. 

After the standard recommendations didn’t help matters, she suggested more extreme measures. “She told us we needed to vacuum the deck if we ate outside, so there were no crumbs,” said Haynes, who saw Hobbs’s advice as impractical. Once the neighborhood rejected the proposal about the hunting dogs, there wasn’t much more that wildlife agencies could do for them.

The bears frequenting Poplar Creek, as far as McVey could tell, had lost their natural wariness of humans. He blamed the people for that. But what bothered him, more than the birdfeeders and carelessly unguarded trash cans, was the fact that bears had entered homes. “The chance of having some horrible interaction with someone was pretty great,” McVey said. His advice to exasperated residents was blunt: “You have a right to shoot and kill a bear if it threatens your life.” 

That message of using lethal force was on Buchsbaum’s mind in the aftermath of having killed the bear, and as Hunter Foster, a Wildlife Resources Commission officer, arrived on the scene. Foster collected a statement from Fields who told him that Buchsbaum had imagined the danger, and worse than that, he put his neighbors at risk. “What if he had missed,” Fields said, “he could have killed somebody.” 

Next, Foster interviewed Buchsbaum, who explained the situation as he saw it: that he had rushed to protect his wife and dog. “[Foster] said that he didn’t care,” Buchsbaum said. “He had already made up his mind that what I had done was wrong.”

Foster issued citations for criminally negligent hunting in wanton disregard for the safety of others, as well as a second charge of taking a bear in the closed season. He also took Buchsbaum’s shotgun before leaving. 

The charges, each a misdemeanor that carried maximum fines of $1,000 and $2,000, respectively, were, in the grand scheme of things, minor offenses. What was more hurtful still is that the day after the incident all but one member of the homeowner’s association board voted to slap him with a $1,000 fine. Buchsbaum felt betrayed by both the fine and the suggestion that he had embellished the danger.

“The chance of having some horrible interaction with someone was pretty great.”

Justin McVey, district biologist

During the months of preliminary hearings that followed, Buchsbaum marshaled his neighbors who shared his view of the situation. Meanwhile, Fields, the only other person to have witnessed the moments before and after the shooting, was preparing to testify against him. 

Despite the attention his case received, Buchsbaum was not the first person to kill a bear in Asheville, and he likely won’t be the last. Just a few years prior, a man in Biltmore Forest, a small town in the Asheville metro, killed a bear in his yard, he said, to protect his dogs. And in 2013, a West Asheville man had been charged with hunting in closed season and discharging his rifle in city limits after he shot and killed a bear walking up his driveway. 

A district judge initially ruled against him, but the man appealed and a jury found that he acted in self-defense. His neighbors, however, were not so forgiving. “People were very mad, and I was personally saddened,” said neighbor Mike Kohnle. “He got a lot of hate, sold his house, and moved.” 

As Buchsbaum’s case inched toward trial last spring, his lawyer and an assistant district attorney paid him a visit at home to discuss the case and to hear his side of things . The district attorney’s office soon came back with an offer: it would drop the weapons charge if Buchsbaum would plead guilty to taking a bear out of season. 

He was reluctant to accept their offer, but he had to admit that the stress and financial expense were exacting a toll. At his wife’s urging, he took the deal. After that, the homeowner’s association dropped its $1,000 fine. 

Learning To Live Among Bears

In April 2022, Buchsbaum sent a long email to his Poplar Creek neighbors to lament how stressful the ordeal had been for him. “I did what I did believing that it was in the best interests of my fellow residents of this community,” he wrote. 

Fields responded with a letter of his own. He wrote that, after the bear was hauled away, he had observed a cub sniffing the dried blood where the slain animal had laid in the grass. “The wildlife officer later informed me this was likely a young mother,” Fields wrote. “I would like to think it was a coincidence, and the cub wasn’t looking for its mother, but I doubt it.”

Sarah Wyrick, right, a masters student at N.C. State University in the department of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology and the lead black bear technician, and Emily Rapach, a black bear habitat technician, survey vegetation and make measurements at a den in a wooded neighborhood in Asheville. (Mike Belleme for The Assembly)
Emily Rapach takes a light reading from a densiometer at a bear den. (Mike Belleme for The Assembly)
Another bear den in a wooded community in Asheville. (Mike Belleme for The Assembly)

The incident drove a wedge between once cordial neighbors, and the ongoing debate about how to deal with bears going forward spoiled friendships. “I don’t say hello, I don’t say goodbye, I don’t say fuck you,” Buchsbaum said of a half-dozen neighbors. 

“He has his narrative that he keeps changing and embellishing to make himself into a hero,” Bernard said of Buchsbaum. “In our four years in the neighborhood, the only time I felt in danger was the day that he shot at our house,” said Fields. 

It’s hard to say how many bears visit Poplar Creek these days, but if the echo of horn blasts through the woods is any indication, there are still plenty of encounters. What there hasn’t been since the incident is a significant run-in of the house break-in variety, which to Haynes would seem to confirm her theory that the bear Buchsbaum killed was the one they’d known as “Mrs. Hateful.” 

Learning to live among bears is, at the end of the day, only as effective as people are willing to modify their behavior. Asheville is not the only city to grapple with these issues. Confronted with the challenge of human-bear conflicts, Aspen, Colorado, and Tahoe, California, have relied on tried-and-true methods such as using bear-resistant garbage cans, locking windows and homes, and avoiding bears. Inevitably, though, success depends on adherence to the BearWise way. “We’ve tested these techniques and we know they work,” said Hobbs.

When education fails, communities generally introduce fines that can quickly add up to hundreds, even thousands, of dollars, for those who refuse to adapt. In February, Asheville’s City Council followed suit, adding language to a city ordinance that empowers animal control officers to issue fines of up to $150 to people whose behavior, such as keeping, feeding, or attracting bears, endangers people and property.

Realistically, however, authorities can’t keep tabs on everyone’s behavior, so as an alternative, McVey suggests that neighbors police one another. But it’s not difficult to imagine how this might run into problems when the loudest voices in the room drown out the views that run counter to their own.

The wonderment of a bear romping through your yard is not lost on wildlife biologists like Strules, but she sees the impacts it has on the animals. Most of the time those interactions are neutral. But not always. Since 2020, only four bears have injured a person in North Carolina. Each of them was around Asheville, and in all but one case authorities determined the animal had acted in self-defense. “The bear is learning that being in close proximity to people carries no negative consequences,” said Strules. 

Urban bear researchers led by Strules are now looking to answer how education influences perceptions about bears and how modifying human behavior might influence bear movements in and around the city. 

In early October 2021—a few months after Buchsbaum killed the bear in his neighbor’s yard—another attacked a couple and their dog on the Blue Ridge Parkway less than five miles from Poplar Creek. The couple’s unleashed dog had provoked the bear. They managed to get to the safety of their car, escaping with a few bites and claw wounds; the dog was unscathed. 

In an effort to capture the offending animal, the commission closed trails and set up traps on and off the Blue Ridge Parkway, yet to the surprise of no one, popular sentiment was on the side of the bear. “The bear was just protecting itself,” said Williams of Help Asheville Bears. 

“Until we stepped in, they were gonna kill multiple bears up there just to find the right one,” Williams added. Wildlife managers deny this claim and the notion that public opinion influenced their decision to pull traps after a week. Had they managed to capture the bear, a commission spokesperson said, it would have been euthanized. 

After the attack on the Parkway, the city was once again at odds over its bears. For some, like Buschbaum, it was further evidence that bears had been allowed to become a public danger, but Williams and many others saw the situation differently. The bears would coexist, they argued, only if people would learn to do the same.

Aaron Nelsen is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in Texas Monthly, the New York Times, and the Guardian Long Read.