Raleigh Ecological Services Field Office
Conserving the Nature of America

Eastern NC Black Bears: Watch from a Safe Distance, BUT DO NOT FEED!!

black bear - photo by Jeff Lewis

The Wildlife Drive on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is a popular place to view black bears safely year round. It's much safer for bears and people if the viewing takes place away from a busy highway. And, people should always view all wildlife from a safe distance and NEVER feed bears or leave food where bears can find it. Feeding bears is both illegal and unsafe for all involved.

ALLIGATOR RIVER – These are healthy times for the Eastern North Carolina black bear. Their numbers are growing, their habitat is lush, their activity after the winter is healthy and evident. Because bears are doing well, there are more opportunities for people to observe them. "This is both a blessing and a curse." said Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Services Manager Bonnie Strawser. "It's quite a treat for most folks to be able to see a bear in a wild setting anywhere east of the Mississippi. So, this is a wonderful opportunity we're able to offer visitors to the Outer Banks. Unfortunately, some people just don't understand how dangerous it is to feed a bear. It's dangerous for people, but it's also deadly for the bear. Most wildlife biologists will tell you a 'fed bear is a dead bear'."

"This is the time of year when bears might be seen along the highways near Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge," said Dennis Stewart, Refuge Wildlife Biologist, cautioning visitors to respect the fact that bears are wild animals. Some are aggressive, and female bears with cubs "can become very anxious if they perceive a threat to their young."

According to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, North Carolina has a healthy population of black bears, with hundreds of bears in Dare and Hyde counties alone. There are populations both in the mountains and along the coast, and bears are also gradually spreading into the Piedmont area. Their range appears to be increasing.

Bears seen along Highways 64 and 264 make their home in Alligator River Refuge or the surrounding forests, according to Stewart, and go along the road to graze on the lush vegetation. They also cross the road to get to different food sources or denning areas. Unfortunately, this puts them in the public eye, and not everyone is really looking out for the welfare of the bear.

"We have a lot more trouble with folks interacting with bears in negative ways along the highways," added Strawser. "Maybe it's because people think they have a quick escape route, but I suspect it's more likely that they're just not educated about what's healthy and safe for bears and people. There are very few ways to 'un-teach" a bear. Once it knows to expect food from people, we've made the turn onto the road to disaster."

"A bear who associates easy food with a human being then expects to get food every time it sees a human. The one time it doesn’t get that food it could become aggressive in search of it," Stewart explained, "that’s what causes the problems. But, just having bears learning to approach people for any reason is bad. Humans and bears are not supposed to interact. They're supposed to live separate lives."

Stewart added, "the bear being fed by people next to a highway is getting a triple whammy of bad luck. The 'trained, but not tame' bear then hangs out around the highway waiting for people in vehicles to feed it. The innocent traveling public who are not interested in feeding the bear are more likely to hit the bear with their vehicle because of where it's hanging out. Those feeding and stopping to observe the bear are more likely to get hurt by the bear - it's a large wild animal. Finally, the kinds of food that people feed to bears is not providing appropriate nutrition for the animal. The bear's physiological and behavioral responses to environmental stress may not be adequate for survival. Once the bear has been lured by people into bad habits, it becomes a danger to people, and it will have to be killed - not good for the bear and a loss for people who want to responsibly enjoy observing a bear." So, a fed bear may cause people to be killed in an auto accident, may be killed by an automobile, may die from physiological stress, or may have to be killed as it becomes more of a threat to human welfare and safety.

Females guarding their young are also aggressive as a protective means. "You just don’t ever want to get between a mother and her young." So how do you know if you’re between them? "If you see a cub, pay attention, don’t go anywhere near it, and know that the mother is someplace not far away." Bears are intelligent, have keen senses of smell and hearing, but fairly poor vision. "They can usually see movement, but might not be able to determine what it is," he said.

Male bears can grow to 700 to 800 pounds, although they are considered large at 500 to 600 pounds, Stewart pointed out, and females generally average between 200 to 250 pounds in the fall, about 100 pounds lighter this time of year. Given that size, it’s hard to comprehend that they weigh 8 to 10 ounces at birth, with two young the average number in a litter. Although the young leave their dens sometime in March or April, when they are approximately two to three months old, they continue to feed on mother’s milk until they are around six months old, and grow quickly. Bear cubs seen at this time of year probably weigh between 10 and 15 pounds, or the size of a healthy house cat. Adult females are also breeding this time of year, reaching their peak in late June. After several days together, the male and female will separate and he will seek out another female. The fertilized egg she is carrying is then in suspended animation within her womb until November, when the embryo attaches to the uterus. Birth is generally six weeks later in mid- to late January. Life expectancy is generally between 5 and 8 years, Stewart said, although bears in the wild have been determined to be as much as 32 years of age.

"We encourage visitors to view bears from a distance, if they happen to come across one on the road," Strawser said. "Never approach it, never try to feed it, and never leave food out for the bear to take later. Bears are unique and intriguing, but they are wild animals and should be treated as such."

A good place to see blacks bears just before dark is the Wildlife Drive on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. But Strawser added, "Pay attention to the time and light situation. The refuge is open to the public only during daylight hours. If you need your headlights, it's probably time to move off the refuge."

National Wildlife Refuges provide unparalleled outdoor activities – including fishing, hunting, environmental education, wildlife observation, and photography–making them special places for all Americans to connect with nature. Many refuges also offer opportunities for nature hikes, bird tours, wildlife drives and other activities. There are wildlife refuges in every state, and at least one within an hour’s drive of most major cities.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 94-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System which encompasses more than 535 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 70 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resource offices and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov.

Last Updated: January 26, 2010