The fall season is upon us. That means cooler temperatures, shorter days, and more…BEARS?!
Photo taken at Blue Ridge Assembly
Black bears are an important part of the mountain experience of Blue Ridge, and bear sightings by staff or guests are a regular occurrence, especially in the summer and fall months. It is also not uncommon to see evidence of them around grounds, in the form of droppings, tracks, and turned-over trashcans.
There have been numerous (sometimes weekly!) black bear sightings around the Assembly in the past few months. Bears are most active this time of year because they are preparing for hibernation. It is essential they consume lots of high-fat foods such as acorns and other nuts in order to sustain them through winter months. Once they have built up a sufficient fat layer on their bodies, they will enter their dens. In North Carolina, denning occur as early as the end of November or as late as the beginning of January and most bears will not emerge from their dens until March or early April, depending on the weather and food availability.
Unlike some animals, black bears are not true hibernators. However, they do become significantly less active and go into a dormant state during the winter months. This is sometimes referred to as “seasonal lethargy” or “torpor”. Instead of a dramatic change in body temperature there is simply a very long period of inactivity (as much as 6 months). During this time they exhibit some amazing physiological responses to decreased temperatures and food intake: the bear is in a deep sleep-like state, and has the ability to store and actually USE the waste in its body for protein and hydration.
Blue Ridge is a high-quality bear habitat with plentiful food sources, so it is no wonder that bears continue to frequent our grounds. The prevalence of oak, walnut, and hickory trees (and delicious-smelling garbage cans) are key factors in attracting bears. The staples of a black bear’s diet include nuts, insects, larvae, berries, fungi, roots, honey, worms, buds, leaves, fruit, twigs, fish, and small mammals. They must eat between 11 and 18 pounds of food each day to stay healthy and this number nearly doubles itself in the fall in order to prepare for hibernation. (They consume 3,000- 8,000 calories a day in summer and spring, but need as much as 20,000 a day in winter!)
Although adult bears are generally solitary, many of the sightings around Blue Ridge are of groups (called “sleuths”) of 4 or more, likely to be a female with her juvenile cubs. They seem to have an affinity for areas around the Lake and just below Blue Ridge Center, especially near the playground and Weatherford’s gravesite.
The Bear Facts
Here are some more interesting facts about black bears:
- The black bear (Ursus americanus) is North Carolina’s largest land animal! Today, in North Carolina two-thirds live in the eastern coastal region, and the remaining third live here in the western mountains.
- Bears generally have poor eyesight but can see patterns and movement well. They are known for their great sense of smell and can locate food up to a mile away just on scent alone. Bears also have very long memories. They often find reliable food sources by following other animal paths, or by remembering a location that their mother showed them when they were young. Mother bears even breathe on their young to teach them what to eat!
- Adult females usually weight between 100-300 lbs, while adult males can reach up to 700 lbs. The current World Record black bear came from Craven County, North Carolina and weighed 880 lbs!
- The average lifespan of a black bear in the wild is 10-15 years, though they can exceed 20 years in an ideal habitat.
- Male bears are called “boars”, females are called “sows”, and young bears are called “cubs”.
- Black bears are surprisingly agile and dexterous. They climb trees not only to escape a threat but also to rest, sleep, play, nurse, obtain food, or seek shelter. They are adept at swimming, digging, and running and have been clocked at speeds of 35 mph over short distances!
- Black bears are considered opportunistic omnivores. They have teeth of carnivores, but have the ability to eat almost anything. In North Carolina, black bears are 95% herbivorous.
- Bears den in cavities of live trees, hollow logs, caves, rock outcroppings, holes in the ground, or simply nests in a thicket. Usually they will construct nests of leaves, sticks, and grass.
- Bears mate in summer but practice delayed implantation, where the egg is fertilized but does not become implanted or develop further until just before hibernation. Males mate with several females, and females usually breed every other year. Litter size is typically 2 or 3 cubs, born about 8 weeks after implantation occurs. Bear cubs usually stay with their mother through their first winter and spring, while yearling siblings may stay together for a full year afterwards.
- Black bear “scratching posts”, marked trees or sign posts are common features in bear habitat. The bears will stand erect against or straddle a tree and scent-mark, lick, rub, bite, or scratch it. It is likely that this tree-marking serves to communicate identity, status, and gender, and assert territory among bears.
- The black bear is an important part of North Carolina’s cultural, historical, and natural heritage. Native Americans depended on bears for survival- relying on their meat and fat for food, and hides to make clothing. When European settlers came to America, black bears were perceived as threats to their livestock and crops, and this resulted in intense persecution. This widespread unregulated killing combined with severe habitat destruction, and the American chestnut blight, caused bear populations to suffer dramatically during the early 20th century.
- While black bears are remarkably adaptable, their population has made a comeback in the last 30-40 years mostly due to a change in human perceptions and public attitude. Better law enforcement and regulation, and better understanding of the species have helped restore numbers in the last century. The NC wildlife commission has set up wildlife corridors under highways. Scientists work closely with hunters and local universities to study bears and many trapping and handling techniques have been established to research the species.
- Bear hunting, a longstanding tradition in the state of North Carolina, continues to be a sport of choice for local outdoorsman who use specially bred hound dogs to sniff out, chase and “tree” the bear. Although it is often controversial, farmers are legally allowed to shoot bears; whereas normal hunters have much more strict regulations and a limited hunting season.
Bears and Humans
The true nature of bears is often misunderstood due to misconceptions created by movies, cartoons, and children’s stories, which portray them either as dangerous animals or cuddly pets. In reality bears are very shy and usually avoid humans. Unfortunately, do to dramatic increases in both human and bear populations over the last 50 years, our habitats inevitably overlap sometimes. Bears are often unfairly labeled as pests or nuisances in communities that fail to take responsibility for their actions, avoiding the necessary steps to prevent bear-human interactions.
Typically bears only visit residential, human-populated areas in search of food. They are naturally curious and resourceful, taking advantage of whatever food is available in their home range (an area that may be anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000 acres in size!). Out of convenience this food source is sometimes in the form of garbage cans, compost bins, gardens, bird feeders, and pet food. Humans must completely eliminate the food source that is attracting the bear in order for the bear to leave permanently.
There is quite a bit of danger in allowing bears to forage for food near humans. As bears begin to associate the presence of human beings with food, serious problems may result. When a bears find a reliable human-supplied food source, they quickly learn new behaviors, returning to that source again and again to repeat those behaviors. They become “spoiled” as a result. Eventually as they lose their fear of humans, they may become more bold, and even aggressive in their actions. Aggressive bears are a threat to human safety and must be relocated, or in most cases, killed.
Bear enjoying a walnut tree on Blue Ridge grounds
Blue Ridge Assembly strives to coexist peacefully with our native flora and fauna. We embrace bears as part of our natural environment, but also strive to show a healthy respect for them and enjoy them from a distance. We have taken the necessary precautions to keep bears away from our facilities and guests, but it is still important to follow a few simple precautions in order to prevent any serious problems in the future.
Some general guidelines for visiting “bear country” at Blue Ridge Assembly:
- NEVER feed or approach a bear. Most injuries associated with bear/human encounters are the result of people feeding bears or when bears are interrupted while feeding on human sources of food.
- Do not litter. Properly dispose of food and food containers in designated trash bins, some of them bear-proof, on grounds. Remember, “A fed bear is a dead bear”. Help keep bears wild and safe!
- When visiting the trails around Blue Ridge Assembly, try to hike in groups of 3 or more. If you encounter a bear, stand close together to make yourself appear large. Make lots of noise.
- If you are alone and see a bear, make loud noises, slowly back away and do not make eye contact. If you attempt to frighten them and they do not respond, do not continue to taunt them or corner them, as they might feel provoked and become aggressive.
- If, in the extreme case, physical contact occurs and a bear attacks, then fight back! Throw rocks or sticks or protect yourself by laying face down on the ground, limbs tucked, and covering the back of your neck.
- It is important to remember that you are more likely to die from a bee sting or be struck by lightning then to die from a black bear attack! As a general rule bears only become aggressive when extremely hungry or when they are protecting their young, so do be very aware of mother and cubs.
Source: The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
Photo credits: Amanda May, YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly Program Facilities Manager
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