It is a little known Bear Fact that coastal North Carolina is home to the largest black bears on the planet! How big are they? North Carolina’s coastal black bears average 50-100 lbs or more than their cousins. The current World Record black bear is an 880 lb. giant from Eastern North Carolina recorded in 1998. In most of their North American range, an adult female black bear weighs an average of 150 lbs and an adult male weighs an average of only 250 lbs. Coastal female, (sow), bears sometimes weigh 300lbs or more with the state record sow is over 500lbs. and many adult male bears weigh 500lbs.or more!
There are three major reasons our bears get to such large proportions. First of all, consider that the diet of bears in most areas consists of mostly berries, nuts, grasses, insect larvae, and carrion, (black bears are perhaps the least carnivorous of the omnivores). By contrast, coastal North Carolina bears gorge themselves on high protein agricultural crops growing in the fertile soils of the coastal plain. Their favorite of these foods include wheat, corn, and peanuts.
Another reason these coastal black bears grow so big is our mild climate. While black bears in most of North America hibernate for long periods of time and can even go months without eating or eliminating waste, (an amazing fact in itself). Coastal North Carolina bears enjoy mild Southern winters with an average daytime temperature of 55 degrees. They have short periods of inactivity during spells of inclement weather and when pregnant sows den up to give birth to their cubs in January. But compared with bears in colder climates, North Carolina's coastal black bears spend many more days actively eating.
Northeastern NC is the breadbasket of the state with huge farms. In addition, most farmland in the coastal plain is bordered by wildlife refuges made up of extensive swamps. According to the North Carolina State Bear Biologist, the Albemarle-Pamilco Peninsula has the highest black bear densities in the world! The peninsula also contains the largest wetland complex in the State and the largest pocosin swamp in the world. In addition, much of this area is incorporated into two large refuges, (Alligator NWR and Pocosin Lakes NWR), totaling well over 200,000 acres!
Tall humans tend to have tall children and shorter parents typically have shorter children. So it stands to reason that after dozens of generations that these giant black bears are passing their large size generic code to their cubs.
Black Bears are thriving in North Carolina! In 1970 there was an estimated population of just 2,000 bears. Now the population is over 20,000! How this was accomplished by the NC Wildlife Commission is a most amazing wildlife management success story. As the population has continued to grow Black Bears sightings have now been reported in all 100 counties of North Carolina!
The largest concentration of black bears in the world is here on the Albemarle Peninsula of North Carolina. Of the estimated statewide population of over 20,000 bears, 8,000 or almost half the population, is found in the five counties making up the Albemarle Peninsula. That includes Washington, Tyrrell, Dare, Hyde and Beaufort Counties.
Black bears are fascinating animals that have captured man’s attention through the millennia. It is also interesting to note that black bears have the largest range of any large four-legged mammal in North America other than whitetail deer. They are found in 40 of the 50 states and all of the Canadian provinces.
Some people find bears intimidating or even scary, while others find them exciting and entertaining to watch. Black bears are highly intelligent, curious, and at times comical. But wherever they are spotted, the sightings become a topic of conversation. In North Carolina, black bears are a symbol of The Wild. They remind us that despite our civilized, computerized, and technological take-over of this land, there remains a growing population of these magnificent creatures.
The award-winning NC Black Bear Festival was created to celebrate these magnificent animals and educate the public about them in fun and interactive ways. The event takes place each year on the first Saturday in June on Plymouth’s historic waterfront on the banks of NC’s Amazon – the Roanoke River.
Although bears can be seen 12 months of the year, sightings are more frequent in March -December. The peak months are May - September. During breeding season, (from late May through late July), bears are very active. Keep in mind that bears are nocturnal, but they are often seen getting an early start going to feeding areas before sunset or lingering in the fields shortly after sunrise. Wheat is the first crop of the season and ripens in May and is harvested in June. This is a good time to see bears because it coincides with breeding season and because they are fairly easy to spot when they are in the wheat fields. Wheat is relatively short and contrasts with the color of the bears. However, if they are a lying down to feed or rest you may walk or drive right by them! After the wheat is harvested, bears like feeding on tender new soybean leaves and switch to corn once the stalks develop ears. They will feed on corn from July though mid-winter, feeding on residual kernels found on the ground after it has been harvested.
The Black Bear Festival offers guided tours each year during the festival.
A prime time for bear activity is when corn is in the “milk stage” in July, when it is the juiciest. At this time corn fields are bear magnets! But the corn is tall and easy for the bear to conceal themselves. While it is no longer easy to see bears in the mature corn, it is easy to see where they have been! The corn stalks are flattened in their travel and feeding areas, angering many hard working farmers. Also look for bear tracks on dirt roads between feeding and bedding areas. After the corn is harvested in late August bears can be easily spotted in cut corn fields at dawn and dusk.
Bear also love peanuts, which are harvested in September for the most part. Peanuts, being a root like potatoes, must first be dug out of the ground. After peanuts have been dug, the peanuts still on the vines are left in the field in neat rows for 5-7 days to dry before being threshed or separated from the vine and taken from the field. When peanuts are first dug, the bears find them irresistible!
As fall wears on into winter and long after all the crops have been harvested, bears continue to go back and forage for spilled grain in these fields. Frosty fall and winter mornings often find bears out hunting for grain and taking in extra calories in harvested grain fields to warm themselves.
Black Bears are much more afraid of humans than vice versa. Never feed bears! The best way to view them with the least disturbance is to stay in your vehicle. They are more accustomed to vehicles and often pay them no mind. By staying in your vehicle it also contains human sounds and smells that would otherwise frighten them. If they see a person outside of a vehicle they are more apt to walk or run away. Whenever and wherever you encounter black bears, it is certainly a memorable experience. Cubs are always cute and fun to watch. If you are fortunate enough to see one of the giant coastal bears of North Carolina, you have viewed something few people outside this area have ever seen or even know about.