North Carolina Black Bear Population Growing

By Britt Combs              Media General News Service 01/15/10

 The population of black bears in North Carolina has recovered from almost total absence in many of the state’s regions. Experts call it one of the great success stories of modern wildlife management.
According to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the past few decades have seen dramatic increases in both black bear population and range. Eleven thousand bears live in an area of about 10 million acres today. In 1971, only 4,000 bears lived in a 2.5 million-acre area.

The beasts that were unique to the mountains and the eastern swamp lands for most of the 20th century can today be found more evenly disbursed throughout the three regions of the state and living comfortably in suburbia and even in major cities.  Gordon Warburton, the supervising wildlife biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, said North Carolina has been a leader and innovator in bringing the bears back.  Along the way, wildlife management workers have learned a great deal about tracking and habitat management, as well as bears in general.  “There were only pockets of bears when we began this effort back in 1969 or 1970,” he said. “We established a bag limit and limited the hunting season.”  A quarter of a million acres of sanctuaries like nearby Mt. Mitchell were established.  Wildlife workers began a catch and release program, tagging the animals for tracking. Hunters were required to report their kills back in 1976. That data alone has shown the recovery bears have made.

According to the N.C. Wildlife Web site, a total of 66 black bears — 40 males and 26 females — were harvested in McDowell County in the 2008-09 season. Warburton explained that, while northern McDowell has always had a robust bear population, in the southern side of the county and nearby areas, bears were “very rare in the early 1980s.”  Hands-on monitoring includes what he calls “bait monitoring.” That involves hanging nice smelly sardine cans on wires “where hopefully only bears can reach them” then monitoring the sites for bear activity. The savor of smelly sardine cans is, it would seem, nigh irresistible to bears. Recently, Warburton added, researchers have been setting the lines to trigger cameras.  When those experiments began, he said, about 20 percent of the sites logged visits; today 62.5 percent of then get a visit.  Techniques like these give a pretty accurate picture of bear activity and confirm their population is growing — and about how bears interact with their surroundings and how people can better manage that habitat.

Biologists used to believe that one bear per square mile was the ideal limit of sustainability, but more recent figures reveal many times that figure, with no detrimental affect on the habitat.  With the rise in numbers, bears have been more likely to live in close proximity to people. Warburton said he and his colleagues were surprised to learn that several black bears live in the city of Asheville. These are not visitors, but full-time residents. He said it’s not surprising, as bears will find the easiest sources of food, just like any other creature. Black bears are mostly vegetarians, he added, but foraging in garbage containers is easier than foraging in the woods.  “It’s vital that people learn how to live in bear country,” he said. That means “managing food and garbage resources.”

A frequently seen scenario is bears visiting a community’s trash container at night. The simple solution: lock the container after a certain hour.  The most attractive human environments to bears, he said, is vacation homes and retirement communities — anywhere people build homes in the woods and are gone for extended periods.  Warburton is optimistic that the big beasts can continue to repopulate North Carolina without presenting any real danger. For all the incidents of human/bear interaction in recent years, with some homes seeing daily visits, conflict is rare and serious injury and death is very rare.

While bears as a group have more to fear from humans than humans from bears, one-on-one it’s no contest. Black bears are faster, stronger and more aware of their surroundings than humans. It is wise to avoid close contact with bears, said Warburton, because they are wild and therefore unpredictable. Feeding bears can often lead to tragedy, he said, when the bear becomes aggressive.  “All it takes is one person in a neighborhood feeding bears to bring them,” he said.  Whether that feeding is deliberate or accidental, through improperly secured trash, makes no difference.  “As long as the bear continues to have access to food, they will stay around,” he explained.

In all likelihood, he concluded, the foothills will increasingly become bear country. The animals are very hearty and the state’s population suffers very little chronic disease. “We occasionally see trichinosis in local bears, but if you cook the meat properly you’re OK,” he stated. “And as with any carnivore, they can contract rabies, but this is very rare.”


13 responses to “North Carolina Black Bear Population Growing

  1. On our way camping fri. July 8th we came upon a huge black bear in the middle of the road he crossed and climbed up the hill. My friends and I believed he weighed 700-800 lbs. about 3 1/2 ft. tall on 4 legs we were so shocked to see such a large bear!! We were about 1/2 mile from Burke county line in Western Caldwell County, NC

  2. We’ve been seeing lots of bears lately in Biltmore Lake.

  3. I live in stanily NC and the home next to got a picture of a black baer on his deer carme.I have had people say there is no bear here. Can you help with this


  5. Carolyn Gloeckner (currently in Florida)

    We have a summer house in a bear refuge near Aurora, North Carolina. Several neighbors have seen a small bear on the heavily wooded part of our property near a pond often enough that they are now convinced the bear has moved in more or less permanently.

    Two years ago I tried to start beekeeping behind our house. The hive was destroyed, wax and brood eaten, and black hairs left stuck in the wreckage, so I know there have been bears on our property. I have also seen scat and footprints on the development’s road, though never a bear. Can we and this bear live peacefully side by side (our house is on about 2 acres, the rest of our 25 plus acres is wilderness) or should we make some effort to encourage the bear to move on? No problem with garbage — we keep it closed up in the garage and periodically take it to the dump. We would never feed a bear or leave food out for it.

  6. My wife and I (and both of our dogs) just saw a BIG black bear in our back yard. We live on the north side of Asheville and in the city limits. We’ve seen other bears, pretty much every summer and ranging from a mom w/ 3 cubs to a sleek 400# female to a grey-muzzled old male. My best guess is that down on all 4 feet, tonight’s bear was 4 1/2 ft tall at the shoulders and weighed in at 550 to 600 lbs.

  7. Just saw a mama bear with her two cubs in tryon! We, too, have been seeing more of them lately.

  8. Saw a black bear on our road this morning when I was leaving for church. We live in the woods in Gastonia NC. It was a small black bear but not a cub.

  9. …and here we are in June 2013 with another black bear in North Raleigh. I’m so glad they’re making a successful comeback.

  10. Just saw 3 this AM in Upper Peachtree, NC

  11. Thank You all for posting because I too saw a bear in Stem, NC yesterday cross in the road right in front of my car and the officer looked at me as if I was crazy. There are clearly more bears in these areas than most people realize.

  12. My husband saw a black bear on the West end of our yard- we live in Wautauga County between Boone and Blowing Rock- going quickly down the bank- into our stream- then quickly up the hill and into the woods behind out house. She moved so quick he had no time to snap a picture- from the size he believes it was a female black bear- in the high weeds and wildflowers the path she forged is still visible 4 days later.

  13. We found bear scat this morning on our gravel driveway. Should we be concerned that the bear will hang around or move along?

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