Black Bear Biology

IMG_0386November typically brings about visions of hunting rutting bucks on frosty mornings. It’s no question that when it comes to hunting in North Carolina, whitetails reign supreme. On the other hand, over the past couple of decades other game species have weaseled their way into the hunter’s agenda. Waterfowl is a very popular game species in eastern North Carolina, probably due to the state’s many estuaries, rivers, and abundant swamps. Of course there are other larger, much larger, game species that have seen a rise in popularity also. The American black bear is a resilient species and has long been apart of North Carolina’s ecosystem. Surprisingly, many Carolina natives lack knowledge about black bear management and biology.

Black bears are the most charismatic mega fauna in North Carolina, which can lead to many human and animal conflicts. Many anti-hunters cringe at the thought of a hunter shooting yogi, but the truth is black bears can cause just as much, if not more crop and vehicular damage than whitetails. Eastern North Carolina has one of the highest black bear densities in the nation. This is surprising to many locals who typically associate black bears with the mountainous region of North Carolina in the Appalachians. With the fragmentation on the once-forested landscape, the need for managing black bear populations is at an all-time high. Here are a few facts about black bears and their life cycle that you may find interesting.

The highest densities of black bears have historically occurred in Hyde, Tyrrell, Dare, Washington, and Pamlico Counties. Black bears are omnivores and commonly consume plants such as blackberry, pokeweed, greenbriar, and hard mast nut-producing trees. They have been known to predate of livestock and whitetail fawns, but this is an opportunistic feeding behavior. While the weather in North Carolina isn’t cold enough to force the bears into hibernation, they will create a den and spend much of their time resting out of the weather and staying inactive. Standing trees with hollowed cavities are a denning favorite for bears. These hollow trees provide insulation and obscurity from pesky critters or humans that may come within close proximity of them. If no suitable tree is nearby, they are capable of denning on the ground and will find cover from toppled trees and logs. In eastern North Carolina pocosins are common and this damp, impenetrable, tangled mess of briars and vegetation is an ideal habitat for black bears.

The home range of black bears varies depending on their location within the state. Warmer temperatures and long growing seasons provide black bears with an ample and diverse range of forage to choose from. Typically, a female bear will have a home range between 4 and 12 square miles. This range is even larger, almost 3 or 4 times larger, for male bears. Take into consideration that a square mile is 640 acres, and you can see that black bears do more traveling than commonly thought. If adequate cover and forage is available, a female black bear will produce a litter of cubs every other year, starting at around age 4 or 5. Each litter typically has 2 cubs, but occasionally more will be present. The black bear breeding season occurs during the summer months and the cubs will be born in late January and February.

Hopefully this has shown some insight to one of North Carolina’s most popular big game species, which is thriving right under the nose of many natives. In the years to come, black bear management will become more important, so it is imperative that North Carolinians understand the role black bears play in our ecosystem. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission even has a black bear cooperative program which allows NCWRC biologists to gather data from harvested bears. The sex and weight is recorded and the premolars are removed so the bear’s age can be determined in a lab. The inserted picture is of myself collecting data from a harvested black bear in Hyde County while working with a NCWRC biologist.  If you are an avid hunter, I encourage you to take part in this cooperative. Every bit of data that is recorded helps the management and preservation of black bears in North Carolina.


Andrew Walters