LBCA Water Quality & Environmental Report What We Need to Know About Bears and Copperheads
by Bill Russell
This year most of us have seen more bears and copperheads around our lake houses than ever before. Does this mean that the population is dramatically increasing? The short answer is: probably not . . . but the frequency of their visits probably is. The current population of black bears in Georgia is estimated to be static at about 2,200, but with that said, bears are perceiving human presence more as an easy and tasty food source than a threat. Human behavior is also more likely to account for more interaction with copperheads than increased numbers as well. In the following paragraphs I will attempt to share a “Cliff Notes” version of what we all need to know about both.
In talking with Forestry Service, DNR, and law enforcement experts I can confirm that black bear encroachment into populated areas is rapidly increasing. There are several factors involved here and most of them can be blamed on our behavior more so than the bears. When this area was more sparsely populated human interaction was rare and when they did see a human, we were viewed as a threat and they kept their distance. With the ever-increasing recreational use of state parks and backpacking trails, along with greater development of lakefront properties and an influx of full-time residents, the bears have become more accustomed to seeing humans and learning that we tend to leave lots of “goodies” around for them to check out. They have a tremendous sense of smell, and like any other animal in the wild, can’t pass up an easy, tasty treat. Uncleaned grills, unsecured garbage cans, pet food left outside, coolers, bird feeders, fish food in boathouses, and even food items inside of closed cars can be a draw. Unfortunately, once they get a taste of human food they never forget that sensation and want more. The high levels of grease and fat, salts, sweets, and other taste enhancers we use in our food preparation becomes something they just want more of. Precautions we must take might not make us happy but are necessary not only for our own good but the good of the bear as well. Wildlife officials have told me that if a bear becomes a nuisance and must be removed most likely it will have to be euthanized, as relocation attempts generally do not work. We must stop providing them an unnatural food source. Wildlife management officials say: “A fed bear is a dead bear.” We should do everything we can to keep this from being necessary. They suggest not feeding birds except in the winter (when they need it most). Keep our household trash secure and dispose of it properly. Don’t leave food items in cars and coolers. Burn your grill off thoroughly after use.
Yes . . . they look like gentle giants, but you must remember they are wild animals and could become dangerous if they feel cornered or a need to protect their cubs. Don’t try to befriend or feed them. Loud noises (banging on a pan, etc.) will usually send them on their way.
In researching the perceived increase in copperheads, I consulted the same above-mentioned folks, snake and reptile experts, and medical professionals. Sadly, snakes of all kinds have always gotten a bad rap, particularly vipers or venomous varieties. Most common to our area in the venomous category are copperheads and timber rattlers. Of the two, most of us on our lake lots are more likely to confront a copperhead. Also, of note, statistically only one in ten snakes you encounter will be a poisonous snake.
Copperhead populations and encounters can vary from year to year depending on weather events and natural food availability. During dry years and years with less food, copperheads usually will only deliver around seven offspring, while during wet years with an abundance of food source the female may deliver as many as fifteen. Adult copperheads can be identified by the copper color with cross bodied hourglass patterns on their back. Young copperheads have the same but less pronounced pattern but can easily be identified by the bright, fluorescent green tail they carry up to about eighteen months. Most copperheads that are encountered are between two and three feet long with a very wide midsection. They have a large triangular head with wide jaws. Contrary to popular belief (or lore) copperheads are not aggressive at all by nature. They will tend to try to stay hidden and really don’t want anything to do with humans. Generally, they must be directly or inadvertently provoked to strike. There are dry strikes which release no venom and are intended to scare off the perceived threat. This is most common with mature adults unless they really feel threatened as they prefer to save their venom for prey. This does not hold true with the adolescents as they have not yet learned that control.
There are things we can do on our lots to reduce the likelihood of a copperhead encounter. Your surroundings and landscaping are key. They prefer to hide in ivy, monkey grass, juniper, and any dense, vine-like ground covers. Keep these plants away from walkways, steps, and high traffic areas. If a ball or toy goes into this type of landscaping be very attentive as you attempt to retrieve it. Use of dryscapes such as rocks, gravels, bark, and mulch are much less inviting and make the presence of a snake much more visible. Another important deterrent is (believe it or not) the presence of non-poisonous snakes such as king snakes (the large black snakes we often see on our lots). They will hunt down and eat poisonous snakes. Just a quick point of note . . . non-venomous snakes are protected by Georgia law . . . it is technically a crime to kill one.
Snakes of any kind will not chase you. If you see one, stay ten feet away and you will be safe. The striking reach of an adult copperhead is only about two feet at most . . . but it happens faster than you can react, so stay back. Snakes have their place in nature and in some ways are our friends. They feed on mice, rats, chipmunks, lizards, and other reptiles and really want nothing to do with you.
If you are bitten by a copperhead it is important to remain calm (yeah, right!), do not apply ice no matter the amount of swelling, do not apply a tourniquet, do not lance or try to suck the venom out. Do call 911 and let them know you are headed to the nearest emergency room or medical center. In the event you are trying to drive yourself let them know your route and what kind of vehicle you are driving in the event you feel ill and must stop so that first responders will know you are a snake bite victim. A word of comfort: there has never been a confirmed death from a copperhead bite in the state of Georgia! A word of warning: that is not true of a timber rattler bite. That is a serious medical emergency and without medical treatment will likely result in death. Most copperhead bites result in swelling of the strike area followed by tissue bruising as swelling subsides. The victim may feel nauseous and run a mild fever for a couple of hours unless they have other medical conditions that could cause complications.
In captivity, copperheads can live close to thirty years. It is unknown how long they are likely to survive in the wild. The state record length is fifty-two inches.
In closing, out in nature there will always be a variety of threats. We must always be aware of our surroundings and realize these beautiful mountains have been the home to a wide variety of wildlife for centuries. We can enjoy observing whitetail deer, wild turkey, a wide variety of birds, red and grey fox, racoon, skunk, possum, black bear, snakes, frogs, lizards, bobcats . . . and even a chance sighting of a panther . . . but, we should always try our best to only observe. Remember, they are and should always be wild animals.