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Two children with a camera peer out of the moon roof of a red truck.
Information icon When a bear is spotted in a field, the caravan stops and Jack and Gretchen Boggs are among those taking pictures of the wild animal. Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

In search of the Bear Necessities

At Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, families hunt black bears with their cameras

Dare County, North Carolina - The caravan of cars crunches slowly, single-file, down a narrow gravel road that leads deeper into Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. Herons alongside the road stare at the passing cars, and the passengers stare back at the herons. Overhead a gliding hawk catches air drafts.

Herons and hawks are all well and good. But we are here for bears. Black bears.

“We’re not a zoo,” Cindy Heffley, a visitor services specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the refuge, told the band of visitors before we set out. “We can’t guarantee you’ll see any bears.”

A group of visitors encircles a USFWS employee in uniform.
Cindy Heffley, a visitor services specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Alligator River NWR, answers questions from visitors as the Bear Necessities program begins. Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

There are an estimated hundreds of black bears on the refuge, but a sighting is still far from a done deal.

Seven cars, holding about 25 out-of-town visitors, creep along, scanning the fields.

Come on, bears. Don’t be shy.

The Bear Necessities program is scheduled every Wednesday during the summer, early June through the end of August, from 5:30-7 p.m., at Alligator River. There’s no signup; just show up at the Creel Cut Wildlife Trail, off US 64 just west of Roanoke Island.

Service staffers and sometimes interns gather the visitors around a flat-bed pickup truck, right next to a sign post that has been draped in a bear skin rug (the rug was donated to the refuge). Everyone wants to pose next to the bear skin, with its wicked-looking teeth (which actually eat mostly berries and insects).

A father son pair inspect a bear rug hung on a refuge sign.
Doug Boggs and his son Jack check out a donated bear skin at the Bear Necessities program. Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

Doug and Jennifer Boggs, a firefighter and teacher, respectively, from Springfield, Ohio, are here with their son Jack, 12, and daughter Gretchen, 10 (it’s an all-ages program.) “We rented a beach house on the Outer Banks for a week,” Doug said, “and we wanted an activity that was outdoors and a little different and found this online.”

Heffley tells the two dozen visitors a few bear facts.

  • Alligator River is home to one of the largest concentrations of black bears in the eastern United States.
  • There is no record of a black bear attacking a human in North Carolina (a frequently asked question). If anything they are fat and docile, and eat insects, grubs, plants and very occasionally a small animal.
  • “They are normally pretty shy and cautious,” she adds. “But bears who have frequent human interactions can be aggressive and dangerous. All bears should be viewed from a safe distance.”
  • They can sprint up to 30 miles per hour, and live an average of four to five years in North Carolina.
  • Adult male bears (boars) can weigh up to 700 pounds, females (sows) up to 300.
  • Not all black bears are black; some have shades of brown.
  • In North Carolina, black bears don’t hibernate, due to the warmer winter. “They’re not as active but they’re out there,” she says.

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge has been doing the Bear Necessities program for more than 10 years. Visitors see a bear or bears about 80 percent of the time; the most bears ever spotted on one trip was about 20.

Two black bear cubs on a tree branch.
Black bear cubs in Alligator River NWR can sometimes have some brown in their fur. Photo by Jackie Orsulak, refuge volunteer.

“People need wild places and we encourage them to explore on their own,” said Bonnie Strawser, visitor services manager at Alligator River. “But we also offer a variety of guided programs where you learn about wildlife, what they need, why they live here, and how they live. Take your kids and grandkids outside. Go make memories.”

Finally, after driving for about 45 minutes, we see one black bear in a field, about 200 yards away. The caravan pulls to a halt and everyone hops out with cameras. Jack and Gretchen Boggs pop up through the open sunroof of the family SUV and start taking photos of the faraway bear. People are out of their cars, snapping away with cell phones. Everyone is excited. Bear Necessities had delivered.

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