Black Bears Recover to Historic Numbers

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North Carolina’s black bears are mounting an impressive comeback, according to the November issue of Wildlife in North Carolina magazine.

“There are more bears in North Carolina today than at any other time since colonists settled the state,” Mark D. Jones, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s bear biologist, writes in the state’s monthly wildlife magazine. Jones credits careful management, controlled hunting, the adaptability of bears and improving public attitudes for the species’ recovery.

Black bears currently number about 4,000 in North Carolina’s mountains and 7,000 in the Coastal Plain. Only a few stray bears wander into the densely populated Piedmont region, where they were wiped out a century ago. Unregulated killing was one culprit in the decline of bear populations, as people viewed bears as threats to themselves or to livestock. Loss of habitat also reduced bear numbers, especially in the Piedmont. Even in the bear-friendlier mountains and coast, they barely hung on.

A series of management programs returned bears from the brink, beginning with the designation of a hunting season in 1927 and a single-bear bag limit in 1947. In 1970, the Wildlife Commission, working with bear hunters, established a sanctuary system that proved to be the key to repopulation.

The resurgence of black bear populations and expansion of their range have fueled increased hunter interest. As recently as 1976, hunters bagged fewer than 200 bears in North Carolina. By 2001, bear harvest totals exceeded 1,500. Regulated hunting is a critical tool in managing the bear populations because it helps keep their numbers at acceptable levels. When bears become too numerous in an area, there exists “the potential for monumental conflicts between bears and people,” Jones writes. “However, as people continue to move into bear habitat and build homes, conflicts with bears will arise.”

Coexistence with bears depends on humans minimizing the possibility of conflict—namely by not feeding bears, intentionally or otherwise. Secure garbage and pet foods, and remember that bears, no matter how tame they seem, are unpredictable wild animals.

Visit the "Nuisance Wildlife" page for more information or call the Division of Wildlife Management at (919) 733-7291.

Wildlife in North Carolina is a publication of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. To subscribe, call toll-free (866) 945-3746 or visit the NC WILD Store.