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INDIAN LAND – Blessed with an abundance of streams and rivers crisscrossing miles of rolling forests and rich farmland, Indian Land was once prized by the Catawba Indians and early settlers for its natural resources, including its wildlife.
Though it’s easy to forget with all the suburban growth of the past decade, those rich forests off Indian Land’s main corridors are still home to an amazing range of wild game – including some species you might not expect to see so close to home.
Just ask Scott Hunt, who last month crossed paths with a black bear in the woods between his home on Little River Road and Doby’s Bridge Road about a half mile east of Indian Land Elementary School.
Hunt said he came upon the bear while helping a friend look for a deer he’d shot.
“I’d found some tracks, and it was quite odd. But I kept following the trail of blood and that’s what led up to the (deer) carcass and the bear,” Hunt said. “It was about the size of a German shepherd, wide up front, maybe 100 pounds.
“Actually, it had ripped off a leg and was feeding on it,” Hunter said. “I was just startled. I stepped back, kind of like, ‘whoa, holy smoke,’ and did a double take. He just looked at me and took off with the leg.”
Though the photographs weren’t available, Hunt and others in the area said they think the bear may have been the same one photographed late last year in the backyard of a home on Henry Harris Road.
In either case, Hunt says he believes the animal is still around, judging from fresh bear tracks found in the woods near his home about two weeks ago.
“What I want to know is have we been living with them the entire time, or did they just show up?” Hunt said. “Or were they here before and now making a comeback?”
S.C. Department of Natural Resources Furbearer Project Director Jay Butfiloski said there have been bear sightings in all South Carolina counties but one, Bamberg County.
He said while the Indian Land area is outside the normal North and South Carolina mountain black bear range, the bear Hunt saw could have been a juvenile male. At that age, the bears generally weigh between 125 and 135 pounds and are known to roam hundreds of miles.
“In general, when we see our bears in odd places, it tends to be in the spring or later in the summer,” Butfiloski said. “Unless this (sighting) happens to coincide with the warmer weather.
“I wouldn’t say it’s rare, because our bear populations are expanding,” he said. “Those young males kind of get displaced and it’s in their own best interest to take off because the larger males could kill them. So that’s why you tend to see young males range (across) large areas.”
Not just bears
Butfiloski and others said one reason it’s not uncommon to see wildlife in relatively well-developed areas is because of the development itself, which chases wildlife out of its natural habitat.
Ed Benzel, who lives on Hancock Road on the back side of Walnut Creek, said over the years, he and his wife, Judy, have seen wildlife ranging from rabbits to escaped domesticated horses gone wild.
About five years ago, Benzel said he shot a 375-pound wild hog that had laid down to rest on the steps of a neighbor’s deck.
Benzel said the sightings got especially intense when contractors began clearing land several years ago for the soon-to-be-opened Walnut Creek recreation area off U.S. 521.
“You’d go outside and see four or five deer in your front yard. And snakes? They were everywhere,” Benzel said. “When all that (land clearing) stopped, the number of animals dropped. But then coyotes moved in and everything else kind of disappeared.”
Benzel said the most exciting animal he’s seen, though, is one the experts say doesn’t exist in the Carolinas – a cougar.
“It was standing right there by the water,” Benzel said, pointing to a spot about 30 feet away beside a pond not far from his house. “I had a Lab/chow mix and a big old Burmese. The Lab came to my right leg and sat down growling, her hair standing up, growling, never did that before; the Burmese growled and took off after it.
“The biologist I spoke with said, ‘I guarantee there are no big cats, panthers or cougars around; not in North Carolina, not in South Carolina,’” Benzel said. “I see bobcats and deer all the time. It was not a bobcat. It was nothing compared to a bobcat.”
Butfiloski, like the expert Benzel spoke with, said while he’d like to believe it, there are no confirmed cases of cougar sightings in the Carolinas.
Eastern cougars, which once lived up and down the East Coast, were officially deemed extinct by the N.C. Wildlife Commission in 2011 after a five-year review trying to confirm sightings across the region, Butfiloski said.
“Understand, we get reports about cougars on a regular basis, however, there’s been no supporting evidence,” Butfiloski said. “All the deer cameras out there and they don’t take any evidence. They (cougars) don’t live in a vacuum, they’re going to leave scat, there’s going to be roadkill, all these hunters with dogs, somebody’s going to tree one.
“They’re always seen in fleeting glimpses,” he said. “Sometimes, if you see fleeting things, your mind thinks, ‘it had to be.’ It makes the decision and that’s what it is.”
Melissa Phillips of Trail’s End Taxidermy in Indian Land, whose husband, Ken, is a professional trapper, said she’s heard about the bear in the area, but has not seen it herself.
She said Indian Land and Lancaster County’s wildlife heritage is diverse – coyotes, foxes, wild turkeys, hogs, raccoons, skunks, fox squirrels and even bald eagles.
“People should expect it. We’re actually moving into their area,” Phillips said. “The houses (being built) have cut down on the room they have.
“The animals have to go somewhere, but a lot of times, they’ll move back into the area when the construction stops,” she said. “It’s natural to see and since I love all animals, to me, it’s a privilege. Just enjoy it.”
What to do
Butfiloski said in general, bears and other wild animals are not dangerous to humans unless cornered, and will almost always run away. He said if you do happen to come across a bear, make yourself look big as possible by stretching out your arms and make as much noise as you can.
“Unfortunately, coyotes aren’t going anywhere. They’re very resourceful and very adaptable. Not generally dangerous to humans, but possibly pets,” Butfiloski said. “Studies have shown that when there’s problems with aggressive coyotes, it tends to be from their intentional or unintentional feeding.
“The best thing you can do to avoid negative interactions with any wildlife is to not leave pet food outside overnight; secure your garbage and clean your grill because it smells like a nice juicy piece of meat to them,” Butfiloski said. “Especially in suburban areas, when animals get acclimated and get accustomed to roaming the neighborhoods, they get a little bit more comfortable.”
Contact reporter Reece Murphy at (803) 283-1151