Today’s round of questions, my smart-aleck replies, and the real answers.
Question: Complain about bears, and you inevitably hear someone say that humans are occupying what used to be bear territory. We’ve taken all their land away, so what are they supposed to do? I propose a simple survey. Is the bear population density greater in the city than in their supposedly preferred forest? If so, that suggests that rather than bears simply struggling to remain in their rightful territory, they have been attracted to the city because of the plentiful food to be found here. What is new in recent years is that bears have learned not to be intimidated by people and their sounds and vehicles.
My answer: Can you really blame the bears? I mean, who among us would opt to sleep in the cold, forbidding forest when we could stroll a few miles into town and hang out in a cozy brewpub or even catch a game at McCormick Field? As I write this, a bear is curled up on my couch, watching HBO, eating pretzels and putting a serious dent on my IPA supply. We’ve learned to coexist. Okay, he won’t leave.
Real answer: First all, that “simple survey” might be a little more complex than you think, according to Jennifer Strules, a graduate research associate with N.C. State University who has worked on the North Carolina Urban/Suburban Bear Study.
“If assessing bear populations were indeed a ‘simple survey,’ believe me, wildlife biologists would have jumped on it!” Strules said via email. “Consider how difficult it is for us to census the human population, let alone try to count wildlife that specializes in eluding people.”
If you’d like to watch an interesting video on “counting” bears, Strules provided a link to a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission video that explains the process. In short, bears look a lot alike, roam around quite a bit and don’t wear name tags, so a precise count is difficult, but estimates are possible.
“Decades of research have gone into developing the methods that provide us with reliable wildlife population estimates, and while constant refinement is occurring, this topic area remains a moving target,” Strules said. “That being said, bear population assessments in North Carolina don’t occur at the scale your reader proposed (‘city vs forest’), but are calculated statewide in three jurisdictions (Bear Management Units) using data from legal bear hunts and other methods.”
The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission annual report, updated in 2020, estimated the mountain bear population at 5,920 to 6,571 bears, and 9,459 to 10,474 bears in the coastal region.
But it’s probably best not to dwell on the numbers of bears.
“What’s important here is not the question of how many bears there are, but, much as the inquiry states, how humans are (usually inadvertently) encouraging bears to access non-natural food resources, such as garbage and bird seed,” Strules said. “We absolutely know that if bears have this access, they will habitually consume these non-natural foods and eventually become threats to public safety.”
Most of us know this by now, but we should all be taking a few common sense steps to not attract bears to our property. That includes removing bird feeders, putting out your trash the morning of pickup to avoid attracting bears, moving pet food containers inside, and cleaning and storing grills.
Also, never feed bears, as that is almost guaranteed to create a returning visitor who may well become a problem. The Wildlife Resources Commission has been pushing the BearWise program, which stresses all of these basics of coexisting with bears.
“City or country, we all need to be part of the solution for living responsibly with bears by making a dedicated commitment to securing bear attractants and effectively eliminating the pattern of bears being drawn to the suburbs for food,” Strules said. “Where there is easily-available food, that is where bears will be, irrespective of their overall population.”
The WRC, on its black bear profile page, notes that bears live in a home range area of 5,000 to 50,000 acres, “depending on their gender and the quality of the habitat. Ranges often overlap in high-quality habitats.”
“Bears prefer large expanses of uninhabited woodland or swampland with dense cover,” the WRC states. “Lowland hardwoods, swamps and pocosins provide good habitat.”
A pocosin is an upland swamp in Southeastern United States, by the way, according to Merriam-Webster.
The bottom line, though, is bears will go where they can find food. They’re omnivores and eat a widely varied diet — and they eat a lot.
“Bears gain weight in autumn to prepare for winter denning, eating up to 20,000 calories per day,” the WRC states, noting that calorie count is 3,000 to 8,000 calories daily during spring and summer. “In North Carolina, bears enter their dens between late October and mid-January, and emerge in March or early April, depending on the weather and food availability.”
We’re actually really lucky to have so many bears around to worry about. Bears are a wildlife success story in North Carolina.
“Before Europeans came to the New World, black bears lived in all forested regions of North America and were abundant in North Carolina,” the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission notes on its black bear profile page. “However, black bears were often killed by early settlers to protect their families, crops and livestock. In time, bears across the state were also impacted by habitat loss from agricultural development and clear-cutting.”
By the mid-20th century, bears survived only in “the most remote mountains and coastal swamps. In the mountains in the 1920s, the American chestnut blight hit particularly hard, destroying the most important nut-producing tree for bears.
Bear populations dropped even more.
“However, thanks to science-based management and bear sanctuaries, black bears have made a remarkable recovery in population and range,” the WRC notes. “Black bear expansion has occurred naturally as bears have moved into suitable habitats.”
As of 2012, North Carolina was home to about 17,000 bears, in 61 percent of the state’s total land area.
And since you’ve read all the way to the bottom, here’s another fun fact about black bears, from the WRC: “They can run as fast as 35 miles per hour!”
I’m just going to leave that big fella on my couch alone.
Got a question? Send it to John Boyle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-337-0941.