Black Bears – Sanctuary in the Green Swamp

The cute, cuddly teddy bear was “born” in 1902 when President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt refused to shoot a black bear while hunting.  The story goes that the President was so popular, that toys were created to celebrate the incident.  Yogi Bear, Winnie the Pooh, Smokey the Bear, Jungle Book’s Papa Bear-Baloo, Bear in the Big Blue House, and Little Bear – all favorites in our home – have offered an inaccurate personification of bears.

At the other end of the spectrum, bears are often represented as roaring, blood thirty, man-eaters.  Both versions skew the truth, making appreciating bears, for what they actually are, difficult. The American Black bear  (Ursus americanus) is not always black.  Regional races can vary in color; for example, some western black bears are brown, red-brown, or cinnamon.  Alaskan black bears on the southeastern coast are blue-gray in color.  In coastal British Columbia, some black bears (called Kermode bears) are cream to white in color.  Settlers on the East Coast were the first to encounter the predominantly black bears, hence the name. American Black bears in North Carolina are black with a paler, sometimes tan, muzzle.  Some have a white patch of fur on their chest.  The black bear has a short tail, short sharp claws, and rounded ears.

The brown colored American Black bear is not to be confused with Brown bears (Ursus arctos), of which Grizzly bear and Kodiak Brown bear are examples.  Brown bears of North America live only in the west and northwest of the U.S. and Canada.  Comparatively, American black bears are smaller, have a long straight forehead to nose profile, smoother fur, and do not have a hump on their front shoulders.

Brown bears have the largest range of all bears, living in Europe, Asia, and North America.  The biggest, in eastern Russia and southwest Alaska, weigh over 1,000 pounds and can be ten feet long. The only other species of bear to frequent North America roams the North Pole.  The Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is the largest of all bears.  In 1962, one weighed in at 2,210 pounds and over eleven feet long.

Contrary to popular belief, bears are not just powerful;  they are fast, too.  They can run up to about thirty miles per hour (which means a bear can catch a running horse, let alone a person).  They swim well and climb trees even when fully grown, unlike other North American bears.

Female and cubs at night. Photo by Rex Little.

Female and cubs at night. Photo by Rex Little.

The front paws are smaller than the hind feet.  Their flat-footed stance allows them to stand like a human, but they do not usually walk that way.  Bears have been seen picking things up rather human-like too.  For instance, holding out one arm and stacking it full with ears of corn with the free paw.  However, unlike a human, they have no trouble running with a 150-pound carcass, if necessary. American Black bears are only found in North America.  Normally, an adult male bear weighs between 300 and 400 pounds, while the normal range for an adult female is between 100 and 200 pounds.  Generally, bears stand two to three feet tall at the shoulder and are between four and one-half and five and one-half feet long from nose to rump.According to Mark E. Ahlstrom in The Black Bear, “the longest black bear on record was killed near Mitford, Pennsylvania, by Herman Crokyndall.  This bear, which was shot in 1923, weighed only 633 pounds, but was nine feet long.”  The biggest bear in North Carolina weighed in at 880 pounds in Craven County.  However, the size of a bear depends on its age, its sex, and the season and food availability.

Basically, male bears (called boars) are larger than the females (sows).  Boars are mostly alone and can wander over an area of eight to fifteen square miles to find food.  This roaming area is the bears’ “home range.”  The home range is not an exclusive territory and can overlap with other bears. Sows are alone or with their cubs.  The cubs slow sows down making their home range smaller (about six square miles).  The female is always close by her cubs and keeps them safe, even from boars that might kill the cubs. It is believed bears are one of the smartest wild animals.  They can remember where they have found food previously and when relocated they have been known to return to their home range from one hundred miles away.  Incidentally, scientists believe the closest relatives to bears are the dog family (i.e. domestic dogs, wolves, and foxes).

Bears are near-sighted and see in color.  They have an excellent sense of smell (possibly 100 times better than humans).  For instance, often they will raise their head and sniff the air to check what is around, rather than look.  They have good hearing, which is believed to be twice as sensitive as humans and to exceed human frequency ranges.

Adult bears are normally quiet, except during mating season.  They may make demonstrative guttural sounds like growling, snarling, snorting, grunting, or roaring.  If threatened, a bear will show its teeth and snap them together, making a popping sound in a warning display.  Bears rarely end up fighting though.  Also, an adult bear will groan or moan if it is hurt.  Cubs whimper, whine, and cry. American black bear are omnivores.  They have flat, broad teeth for grinding plants and pointed, front teeth for ripping meat (42 in all).

While bears are predators, less than one-quarter of their diet is meat.  Black bears eat a wide variety of foods.  They will eat grasses, rose hips and many kinds of buds, bulbs, and flowers, any fruit, honey and the beehive, corn, assorted nuts, roots and tubers, bark, ants and many insects, mice, squirrel, chipmunk, birds and their eggs, deer, fish, clams, pigs, sheep, and carrion. Oak and nut trees are particularly important to bears because acorns and other nuts help the bears fatten up for winter.

2 Bears at night. Photo by Rex Little.

2 Bears at night. Photo by Rex Little.

Apples and blueberries are said to be favorites and, in times of food shortages, bears have been known to raid orchards and beekeeper’s hives.  Normally, they feed in the day becoming active at dawn, taking in a nap during the day, and turning in after dark.  However, some bears feed at night to avoid contact with humans and other bears.  Either way, dawn and dusk are active times.The males and females are only together to mate, which is usually from June to August.  Boars may mate with more than one sow.   In North Carolina and much of the eastern U.S, a sow may mate at age two because of good habitat.  But in parts of Alaska and Canada with poor habitat, a sow may be in her sixth year before she can mate.Interestingly, bears mate over the summer, but implantation is delayed until about November.  Sows give birth to their cubs in their winter den in late January or early February.  One to six cubs are possible with the average being two cubs.  The quality of the habitat, the sow’s health, as well as other factors are important for embryo development.  (That is, factors such as, poor habitat not only effect a sows’ mating age, but also whether the embryo will develop or not.)Cubs weigh about one-half of a pound when they are born.  They have fine hair on their bodies and five toes with small claws on each foot.  Their eyes are closed at birth and their ears lie flat against their head.  The newborns nurse and sleep only.

Around forty days old, they open their eyes and thick fur begins to cover their bodies.  They now weigh about four pounds.  At eight weeks (March/April), they leave the den for the first time.  In late summer the cubs will begin to eat the same food as the mother and stop nursing.  By nine months old (about October), the cubs weigh near fifty pounds on average.  In the winter, the sow and cubs will share the same den. The den of preference is often an area dug under an uprooted tree, but any hidden place will do.  The bear will line the den with leaves and grass. Before going into the den for winter, the bears will stop eating to empty their digestive tract.  Then, they eat leaves, pine needles, and a small amount of their own hair, which forms an anal plug.  This stays in place all winter and keeps the den clean.  (When the bears come out of the den in spring, they drink a lot of water, presumably to help lose the plug and facilitate digestion.)

Black bears in North Carolina were not considered true hibernators until recently because their body temperature remains close to normal and they can become active if bothered.  But biologists re-defined mammal hibernation as, “a specialized, seasonal reduction of metabolism concurrent with the environmental pressures of scarce food and low ambient temperatures.”  Under the new definition, black bears are “highly effective hibernators”.

Regardless, bears have a long winters nap.  Basically, they are dormant in winter, sleeping and waking to change positions.  They go without food or water and without urinating or defecating.  They recycle their body wastes into protein and live off their fat reserves. During this time, a bear can lose nearly half its body weight. Mark D. Jones, Black Bear Biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission elaborates, “whatever you call it, the process in bears is more highly advanced than the so-called ‘true’ hibernation of rodents [other mammals].  Here’s why: 1) rodents must emerge from the dens to urinate, defecate, and feed.  2) Bears can process body waste and maintain muscle structure despite months of inactivity with no food – something a ‘true’ hibernator cannot do – true hibernators must regularly emerge from a den – thus, the groundhog seeing its shadow in February!  3) Yes, bears do not drop body temperatures as much and can be roused pretty easily, but the processes they undergo are subjects of research by the human medical community because of implications for kidney patients and those suffering from digestive and bone diseases.” Interestingly, during this hibernation period, orphaned cubs have been successfully introduced to wild surrogate mothers.

By the time the sow fully wakes in the spring, she does not realize she adopted a cub and accepts it as her own. The cubs will stay with the mother between eighteen months and three years.  Generally, male yearlings leave in the second summer, but female young may be tolerated a bit longer.  When the sow leaves the cubs, she will mate again.  The cubs might spend another winter together, but go their separate ways the following spring. A black bear can live an average of about fifteen years in the wild with the oldest reported to have been thirty.  Watchable Wildlife:  The Black Bear by Lynn L. Rogers, writes, “nearly all adult bears die from human-related causes.  Most are eventually shot.  A few are killed by vehicles.  Bears less than seventeen months old sometimes die from starvation, predation, falls from trees, and other accidental causes, but few die of disease.” Habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and poaching threaten bear populations worldwide.  However, the American black bear population in North Carolina is stable, which allows the species to be a game species.  The hunting season for Brunswick and Columbus Counties is, basically, December to January (e.g. in 2004, it was December 6th to January 1st) with the limit of one bear per hunter per year.

Green Swamp Black Bear Sanctuary

According to North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) personnel began officially monitoring black bears across the state in 1969.  In the 1970’s, a voluntary sanctuary system began.  Sanctuaries provide protection for black bears.  The NCWRC designates sanctuary with the landowners’ permission and enforces the laws and regulations regarding the conservation of the species. The Green Swamp Black Bear Sanctuary has been around since 1971.  Mark Danaher, Carolina Region Wildlife Program Manager for International Paper explains, “the Sanctuary is approximately 34,686 acres in size (or about 54 square miles) and extremely important for the perpetuation of black bear populations here.  It is the only large NCWRC sanctuary in this portion of North Carolina and one of the largest in the entire system.  [Also], the sanctuary is in an area of the state that has relatively low bear densities, which makes it that much more important for the black bear.” Danaher states, “International Paper’s Green Swamp Black Bear Sanctuary is bounded by Makatoka Road to the west, Honey Island Swamp and International Paper’s CCC Road to the north, Town Creek Road to the east, and private property to the South.” Additional acres of land in the area is considered “De Facto” sanctuary because the land owner has decided not to allow bear hunting on that land either.  For example, the Nature Conservancy land to the south and east of the Green Swamp Black Bear Sanctuary is De Facto land because bear hunting is not permitted there. NCWRC collects biological samples (teeth and reproductive tracts) from black bears killed by hunters and cars to “monitor population age structure, reproductive parameters, and estimate population levels.” 
Hunters provide “over 90%” of the samples and are considered “critical to the program.” The samples are provided on a voluntary basis, as well.  Since hunters can register their game online or via telephone, the NCWRC usually gets samples from about 50% of the harvest.  Hunters can call the NCWRC to find out how and where to provide the samples or go to a check station.

Large bear at night. Photo by Rex Little.

Large bear at night. Photo by Rex Little.

While much of the data regarding black bear population is not specific to the Green Swamp Sanctuary, Mark D. Jones, Black Bear Biologist with the NCWRC, is confident the statistics accurately reflect the dynamics of the sanctuary.  Jones explains, estimating population levels, monitoring age structure, reproduction parameters, and conducting bait station surveys are recorded for Bear Management Units (BMU) rather than by sanctuary.  Jones adds, “we are doing much fieldwork in the western mountains and along the eastern coast – just not much near the Green Swamp at this time.”

The Lower Coastal Plain BMU includes any sanctuaries that might be in the following counties:  Brunswick, Columbus, Bladen, Cumberland, Sampson, Duplin, Pender, New Hanover, Onslow, and Carteret.  According to Jones, the NCWRC estimates the total population of black bears in North Carolina at 11,000, “based on data we collected with 7,000 on the coast and 4,000 in the mountains.”

The NCWRC web site states, “due to abundant agricultural crops and more stable resources, the average weights of Coastal bears exceed those of Mountain bears each year.  During the 2003-2004 black bear season, North Carolina produced forty-eight bears in excess of 500 pounds on the Coast.”

While checking out the sanctuary with Rex Little, Circle R deer-hunt club owner and operator, with my daughter, he joked he never goes into bear country with anybody that he can’t run faster than.  It took my nine year old a minute, but she got what he was saying.

We were not there looking for bears, but rather signs of bears.  Sure enough, Little, who is concerned with local bear conservation, showed us an area where bears had “rolled all around, playing” and had tramped down the wiregrass.  The trees bore claw marks and some had bite marks.

Little pointed out, “notice that every tree marked with yellow paint has a bite out of it.”  My daughter and I deduced, bears do not care for the color yellow and we will not be wearing it when hiking in bear country (whether it is a scientific fact does not matter).  Seeing the bite taken out of a tree gave me the perspective I needed.

Bear rolled area. Photo by Rex Little.

Bear rolled area. Photo by Rex Little.

Living in Black Bear Country

The black bear is basically reclusive and non-aggressive, preferring to live in the woods and swamps away from people.  They generally will run if given the opportunity, even a female with cubs.  Wild American black bears “avoid humans unless provoked or attracted by human activities” [e.g. garbage or food].  More often than not, if a bear is nearby, people are not aware of it because bears hide well.

However, a bear tame in appearance is much more dangerous than a wild bear because it has lost its fear of humans.  For this reason, feeding bears is bad for bears and people, alike.

While black bears have attacked and killed more people than any other North American bear, it is primarily just because there are more of them in close contact with people.  It is important to remember bears are never really tame and people should not insist on feeding them, even in national parks.  Their size alone should command respect.  Their quiet nature does not translate into a docile nature.  Wild animals have an unpredictable disposition naturally, hence the term “wild”. While Jones says, most bear–human encounters occur in the Western portion of the state, there are a few things to keep in mind according to Living in Black Bear Country – A Guide for Preventing Problems with Bears in North Carolina by Calvin H. Allen.  (The 13-page guide is downloadable from the NCWRC and offers specific advice to beekeepers and farmers for protecting crops, livestock, and fisheries.)

If you see a bear in your backyard or in town, stay calm.  The bear will not stay unless it finds food.  Keep children and pets inside and do not approach the bear.  Do not corner or surround the bear.  As long as the bear has a clear escape route and is not feeding, it is not necessarily a problem.

3 bears at night. Photo by Rex Little.

Often a bear can be scared away by making noise, banging on pots, or yelling.  Jones adds that there is no reason to be “trigger happy.”  Just spotting a bear does not make the killing of a bear justified.  The bear must be threatening life or property or the shooter is going to court.
If a bear is treed, stay away.  The bear will probably come down at night, provided a clear escape route to the woods is available.  According to The Guide, it is important to “take extra precautions not to feed bears accidentally – bears are attracted to garbage, food scraps, pet food, and many other forms of human food.  Keep such foods locked away from bears in strong, safe places.  [This will] help bears to settle in natural areas, instead of becoming pests that may ultimately need to be destroyed.”

Moving a bear is not really an option.  The bear will return or become a pest in its new location, or another bear will be attracted to the area.  Not to mention, catching the bear and moving it is difficult and dangerous.  Prevention is the best option.According to, “most bear problems in residential areas are temporary and usually occur in the spring and summer months.  Between the time bears emerge from their dens and summer foods such as berries ripen, natural food supplies are low and not very nutritious.  This causes bears to travel more in search of food.  Also, in breeding season males tend to roam more in search of mates.  Finally, when young males are dispersing to new territories, they may wander into residential areas.  Usually dispersing bears remain in the area less than two weeks.”

When driving in bear country, as many do on Highway 211, be alert.  “When driving at night in bear country, slow down and use high beams.  If you see a bear, flash your high beams, sound your horn, and slow down or stop.  If you hit a bear, don’t get out of the car.”  Call 911 for local law enforcement.

For more information, the NCWRC has produced a documentary, The Bear Facts, The Story of a North Carolina Treasure that is available for purchase on Amazon. 



Previously published in The Brunwick Beacon [2005].  Reprinted with permission.  All photos for this article are copyright of Rex Little, cited in the article.

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