Here's what to do if you see a bear according to the National Park Service and other experts

The North Carolina black bear population has increased over the years. Here's what to do if you see one. 

The black bear comeback

There’s good news and not so good news when it comes to black bears. The good news is that the story of Ursus americanus in North Carolina is a real wildlife conservation success story. 

Back in the 1970s, the number of black bears in the state had declined to roughly 1,500. Some people worried that black bears would disappear entirely from the state. 

But that’s when the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission established a number of bear sanctuaries on national forest land. Hunting wasn’t allowed in those areas. 

The bear population slowly began to grow and it really took off in the mid 2000s. Increased land development was part of the reason. That might sound odd, because in general development is bad for wildlife. But bear researchers at the NCWRC say that in the case of bears, housing developments creates de facto bear sanctuaries. In short, development is actuallya protection for bears. 

Don’t forget, bears are opportunistic omnivores and quickly adapt to take advantage of any food source available. As long as there is food and the area is reasonably safe, bears can live in close proximity to people. In fact, bears can live up to 30 years, with the main cause of mortality being hunting and vehicle collisions. 

There are now an estimated 17,000-20,000 black bears in North Carolina. About 7,000-8,000 of those bears live in the western part of the state. 

Crossing paths with a black bear

Now, the not so good news...

With so many more black bears in the state, there’s a possibility you might come across one; and that can be dangerous. So what do you do in that scenario? Here’s some advice from the NCWRC and the National Park Service. 

  • Remain calm and steady, no quick movements. 

  • If possible, try to determine if there are cubs present or whether the bear is defending a carcass or other food source. That could make the bear appear to act aggressively.  

Now that you know the situation… 

  • Respect the bear’s need for personal space. Do not approach, even to get a photo. No, taking a selfie with a bear isn’t a good idea. Consider turning around and leaving the area. If you need to keep going, give the bear a wide birth. Chances are, the bear will simply ignore you if you don’t bother it. 

  • It’s best to simply leave the bear alone. Unless the bear feels threatened, or you have come between a mother bear and her cubs, the bear will most likely ignore you.
  • Sometimes if a bear feels threatened it will “act aggressively." The closer you are when the bear notices you, the more likely it is to react: popping its jaws, blowing and snorting, or pawing the ground. Try to appear non-threatening by remaining calm and still. Speak in an appeasing voice and back away slowly. 

  • Sometimes a bear may approach you in a non-defensive way. It may simply be curious or it may be young and testing its dominance. In any event, talk to the bear in a firm voice and get out of its way if you can. If the bear continues to follow you and its attention is on you, it’s time to stand your ground.
  • Act aggressive. Look the bear in the eye and shout, make noise, look as big as possible. Stamp your feet and take a step towards the bear. Threaten the bear with a stick or whatever you can. The more the bear persists, the more aggressive your response should be.
  • If the bear does make physical contact, fall to the ground and play dead. Roll onto your stomach and cover your neck and the back of your head with your hands.  Keep your legs and elbows wide so the bear can’t flip you over. When the attack is over, stay still and wait for the bear to leave. Don’t get up until you are certain the bear is gone.


—Frank Graff 

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci Tech Now North Carolina, a weekly science series that airs Tuesdays on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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