When You Are Where Wild Bears Live…

July 2015

by Linda Martinson 

“When you are where wild bears live, you learn to pay attention to the rhythm of the land and yourself. Bears not only make the habitat rich, they enrich us just by being.” 

Linda Jo Hunter  Lonesome for Bears

And we are where wild bears live. Bears have occasionally been sighted at Richland Ridge, and signs of bear activity are frequent, for example, deep scratches on dead trees. Black bears, however, very rarely injure or kill people. When black bears and people cross paths, the bears are almost certain to run away. In the last century, there have been only 23 deaths from black bear attacks in all of the United States and Canada, most of them in remote areas. You are 180 times more likely to be killed by a bee than by a bear and 160,000 times more likely to be killed in an automobile accident. Even a mother black bear will usually run away from humans leaving her cubs behind, which is why bear cubs are often found “deserted.” Because they are warm-blooded animals, they can get rabies, but it is very rare. Also, there are no known cases of a human contracting rabies from a bear.

The American Black Bear is the only bear in the eastern United States, and North Carolina’s bear population is estimated at 17,000 – 20,000, most of them in the rural eastern part of the state. Western North Carolina has an estimated 6,500 – 8,000 bears with 1,500 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The population density of bears is low, approximately one for every two square miles, so the bears sighted at Richland Ridge are probably just passing by in their almost constant foraging for food.

There weren’t always this many bears in North Carolina; in 1970, the population had decreased to only about 1,500 bears statewide. Because there was concern that the black bears might disappear, the Wildlife Resources Commission established several bear sanctuaries on national forest land where hunting isn’t allowed. Black bear numbers slowly began to increase and then to accelerate in the early 1990s partly because of increased land development, which creates de facto bear sanctuaries where hunting is not allowed.  

Bears can be up to six feet in length and up to three feet high at the shoulder. During the summer months, a typical adult male bear weighs approximately 250 pounds, while adult females weigh slightly over 100 pounds. Bears can double their weight during an intense period of eating before denning, when they forage up to 20 hours a day consuming up to 20,000 calories and gaining up to 3 pounds every day. 

Bears have color vision and a keen sense of smell; they are good tree climbers, can swim very well, and can run up to 30 miles per hour. They are not really built for speed or for far vision, however; they are built to forage seeing clearly only what is right in front of them. Like humans, bears are opportunistic omnivores, but about 85% of their diet is vegetarian, primarily green shoots, berries and nuts. Their lips are quite manipulative because they are not connected to their gums, so they can easily pick flowers and shoots. Usually, their only sources of protein are insects and animal carrion. 

Credit: Appalachian Bear Rescue

Bears can seem almost human at times; they are highly intelligent, and they stand and sit like we do. They quickly learn how to take advantage of any available food source and how to live in close proximity to humans. For example, although bears prefer to sleep at night like we do, they have adapted to a nocturnal life to avoid confrontations with humans. The better they avoid humans, the longer bears live, which can be up to 30 years. Their main causes of death are from hunting and from being hit by a car or truck. 

Denning begins in the late November/early December for the black bears in our region. During the five months a bear is (mostly) in its den, its heart rate declines from about 100 beats to 85 – 90 beats; its respiration decreases significantly; and it does not eat, drink, urinate or defecate. Female bears develop fertilized eggs during mating in the summer, but they have delayed attachment of the eggs until just before they den. If a female bear’s condition is not strong enough, she will abort the eggs. If it has been a good foraging season, bears can have up to six cubs. After last year’s significant mast production, a bear with five cubs has been spotted several times in Asheville.

The cubs are born in late January, and they are blind, bald, and about the size of a guinea pig. The cubs grow rapidly because bear’s milk is about 35% fat. By the time they leave the den in April, the cubs are the size of a large puppy and ready to move around and follow their mothers. They leave their mothers at about 18 months, which means that they typically spend a second denning season with her. It is mostly the young adults that we are likely to see here at Richland Ridge, because they have not yet completely learned how to be discreet around humans. 

We are fortunate to have a lot of information about black bears in our region from the bear studies initiated in the Smokies by Dr. Michael R. Pelton in 1969, now the longest continuous study of any bear species in the world. Dr. Pelton, his students, and colleagues have gathered definitive research data on such factors as diet, size of home territory, numbers of bears, denning habits, etc. For example, their research indicates that 80 % of black bears hibernate in dens at the top of dead trees as high as 85 ft tall instead of digging dens in the ground.

We also have Appalachian Bear Rescue, a one-of-a-kind bear rehabilitation center located just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is a nonprofit organization that has rehabilitated and released hundreds of black bear cubs back to the wild since 1996. Here is a link to a video describing what they do with the rescued cubs: http://appalachianbearrescue.org.

Count yourself lucky if you see a black bear; it will be one of the most memorable experiences of your life. They are one of the last great symbols of the wild in our lives. Bears have adapted to living with us, and we must adapt to living with them. It is our responsibility to protect bears and to treat them as wild animals, primarily by managing our garbage and food sources so they do not associate humans with food. 

Biologist Stephen Herrero: “There’s no question that it’s possible for people and bears to coexist without serious problems if we’re willing to manage our food and garbage.”

References: Check out humanesociety.org “What to Do about Black Bears” to learn how to avoid habituating bears to our food. And check out the April 29, 2014, edition Asheville Citizen-Times online to learn about a four-year study of bears in the Asheville area: “Asheville Site of Major Bear Study”.