With Help From Humans, Bears Are Holding Their Own

By Ed Wall

NEW BERN, NC–I witnessed an interesting thing a couple of weeks ago.

While sitting at a stop light on a major highway at about 10 a.m., I noticed what appeared to be a large black dog on the side of the road a short distance ahead. As I watched, he very casually loped across the highway and into some woods, heading toward a housing development and an elementary school.

The “dog” was a Black Bear–about 150 pounds by my estimation– and he didn’t appear to be in any particular hurry to get wherever he was going. None of the other motorists who saw the bear pulled over or, in any way, seemed to be alarmed. A few heads swiveled and then everyone, including the bear, went on about their business. And, since nothing showed up on the six-o’clock news about the incident, I assume he avoided any run-ins with little school kids or soccer moms.

The real significance of the incident wasn’t that a Black Bear was cavorting on the edge of an urban area, within sight of the town’s city limit sign, but that his presence was accepted as part of the natural landscape. That, in the opinion of a lot of folks, is a really good thing. It’s evidence of one of the greatest success stories in modern wildlife management.

When European settlers first made their way across what is now North Carolina, they encountered Black Bears everywhere. Perceived as a threat to livestock and possibly humans, they were wiped out in the piedmont by the late 1800s. Populations were able to hold on in the dense forests at either end of the state, but uncontrolled hunting and increasing urbanization continued to assail the state’s largest wild animal and by the 1950s their numbers had dropped to an estimated 750 in the mountains and about 3,000 in the coastal counties.

At that point it was obvious that, if something wasn’t done, bears might eventually disappear from our landscape. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) closed the hunting season temporarily in many areas and established bear sanctuaries in others.

In addition, they enlisted the assistance of the Weyerhaeuser Company which, by the early 1960s, had acquired massive expanses of timberland–prime bear habitat– in the state’s coastal counties. Weyerhaeuser, enacted restrictive bear hunting policies on the lands they leased to hunting clubs or had open to the public. Other timber companies followed suit.

Perhaps most important, the NCWRC established policies and programs to encourage research on Black Bear management and habitat. Much of the actual field work was done by scientists and graduate students from institutions such as NC State University, the University of Tennessee and Virginia Tech.

One of those former grad students, Mark Jones, is now the NCWRC’s Black Bear Project Leader. He says that what has been learned about bear physiology, population dynamics and habitat as a result of the research done under the Wildlife Commission’s guidance over the past three decades has been instrumental in the rebound of bear numbers in the state. He also points out that the assistance of hunters has been integral to the biologists’ efforts.

“Without hunters, it would be impossible to do what we do,” he said recently. Jones was referring to data that hunters voluntarily provide about the age, sex, weight and other characteristics of bears they harvest during the open season. That bank of information has been of tremendous value to the scientists and wildlife managers.

“We probably have one of the best data bases in the country of hunter-killed bears,” Jones noted.

As a result of hunting restrictions and the availability of high-quality habitat, the Black Bear population in the state’s 28 coastal plain counties has grown to approximately 7,000. Another 2,000 live in the smaller mountain region. According to Jones, those numbers are expected to remain relatively stable for the foreseeable future.

“We will probably never see bears reach their biological carrying capacity in the eastern U.S. because the (human) population is just growing too much,” he explained. “We’re pretty close to the cultural carrying capacity.” The cultural carrying capacity is the maximum number of bears that can inhabit an area without having major conflicts with the human population.

Jones said that there are occasional problems that arise from bear-human interaction but that they are relatively few in number and manageable in nature. One area of concern is the incidence of auto accidents caused by collisions with bears.

Wildlife Commission data shows that about 60 bears are killed on North Carolina roads each year, mostly at night. Bear experts advise motorists driving in bear country to use high beam headlights and be alert for movement on the side of the road. If a bear is spotted, motorists should sound their horn, slow down and, if necessary, pull off the road and turn on emergency flashers. Drivers who collide with a bear should stay in their vehicle and phone the Highway Patrol or local law enforcement.

Since the late 1980s, bear hunting regulations and seasons have been liberalized in many parts of North Carolina’s coastal plain. As a result, the harvest totals have shown a dramatic increase. Wildlife biologists expect those numbers to remain fairly stable in the east. The number of bears taken by hunters in the mountains may vary somewhat year-by-year because of the dependence of the animals there on hardwood mast crops.

In the east, soybeans, corn, wheat and other row crops provide a steady diet for bears in most areas and help them avoid the “feast or famine” experience. The availability of agricultural foods also helps to explain the presence of the large bears that eastern North Carolina has gained a reputation for producing.

A 880-lb. boar bear, taken in Craven County in 1998 is the heaviest black bear ever killed in North America, according to Mark Jones who checked with every state and provincial wildlife agency. He noted that a number that weigh over 600 pounds are taken each season and there have been a few that took the scale past the 700 lb. mark. The heaviest bear–680 lb.–taken by a hunter in the state during the 2004-2005 season was bagged by Robert Nobles, Jr. of Vanceboro.

Mark Jones explained that, “The ratios (of large bears to others) are not really changing. There are just more bears being killed. Also, it’s more publicized.” He said that the existence of large bears here is not just a matter of perception, though. “We consistently produce bears of 600 to 700 lb. We do that at a rate that will match anybody.”

Thanks to the efforts of professional wildlife managers, landowners and sportsmen, the Black Bear seems to be in “high cotton” in eastern North Carolina. Numbers are up and holding, and their occupied range now includes nearly all counties east of I-95.

Demographers say that the state’s human population will continue to grow at a fast clip over the next ten years, but most of the growth is expected to be in the already-urbanized piedmont and, hopefully, will not seriously impact bear populations. If that holds true, we will all be better for it–not just hunters, but also those of us who just enjoy seeing a bear cross the road once in a while. –Sun Journal