Audra Haskins is no stranger to bear encounters. About 12 years ago when she lived in Upstate New York, Haskins saw a juvenile bear run down the street in her neighborhood, go into her backyard and climb over the six-foot fence on her family’s property. Just a few months ago, while driving in North Carolina during a vacation, she saw a cub in a neighborhood.
In those encounters, there was always a measure of separation between Haskins and the bear. In New York, she was inside her house. In North Carolina, she was inside a car.
But on Sunday, little separated Haskins when she encountered a black bear on the Big Creek Greenway.
Black bear sighting at Big Creek GreenwayForsyth County resident Audra Haskins (not visible) encountered a black bear during a run at the Big Creek Greenway on Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018.
Despite her experience with bears, Haskins said she was still stunned by the sight.
“I have never seen a bear there,” Haskins said. “I’m here morning and evening and never seen it.”
According to Melissa Cummings, a communications and outreach specialist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the bear Haskins saw was likely a young male no longer under the protection of a mother bear and looking for its own territory.
Haskins’ encounter is a rarity but increasingly less so as bear ranges and urban areas overlap more and more. Georgia saw its black bear population nearly wiped out in the 1930s, but they’ve gradually returned to healthy numbers. The DNR estimates there are now 5,100 black bears in the state concentrated in three areas: the Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia, the Ocmulgee River in central Georgia and the north Georgia mountains.
In a situation like Haskins’ encounter, wildlife experts say predatory or aggressive black bears are rare, but people should never approach a bear.
Haskins was about seven miles into her run on Sunday, much longer than she intended when she started out at the Bethelview Road entrance to the Greenway. Haskins said she’s training to run a half-marathon, and her smartphone GPS app was supposed to notify her at mile four, at which point she would turn around. It didn’t, and so she continued on.
Haskins reached a bridged-portion of the Greenway across from the entrance to Fowler Park, part of which crests up a bit so that she didn’t see the bear until she reached the top.
“I just realized, ‘That looks like a bear,’” Haskins said.
Her instinct was to keep a safe distance. Two other people were nearby, and Haskins implored them to stop. She said she did the same to a bicyclist who approached.
Haskins’ other instinct was to take a video of the bear with her smartphone. Haskins captured about 15 seconds of footage in which the bear stops, looks back at Haskins and then walks in the other direction.
“I thought, ‘No one’s going to believe me,’” Haskins said.
Haskins said the bear continued to walk away and look back, walk away and look back, then climbed over the bridge fence into an open field and ran into the woods.
Before Sunday, Haskins had never seen a bear in Georgia. She said she once saw bear tracks on the top of Sawnee Mountain, but she’d only heard of bear sightings.
The encounter was a reminder for Haskins of how close black bears are to populated areas in the region and the need to be vigilant during outdoor activities.
“You want to be careful,” Haskins said. “These things are all around us."