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NC's Bear Population Going "Nuts"

PHOTO: Hungry black bears will go just about anywhere to find acorns. This one was spotted in an East Asheville community. Courtesy
PHOTO: Hungry black bears will go just about anywhere to find acorns. This one was spotted in an East Asheville community. Courtesy
October 14, 2013

ASHEVILLE, N.C. – Tales of black bears walking residential and city streets are becoming more common in parts of North Carolina.

What's to blame? It's nuts or acorns, to be specific.

A favorite food of the bears, there aren't many to be had this year in the higher elevations of western North Carolina, which forces bears to look for other food sources.

Josh Kelly, a biologist with the Western North Carolina Alliance, says the big swings in acorn production by oak trees are caused by a phenomenon called massing, that scientists haven't been able to explain.

"What is known is that generally, oaks across a wide region will have a coordinated output of nuts,” Kelly says, “so that on some years, they will all have low production and other years, they'll all have high production."

Acorn production is also thought to affect bear numbers. Kelly says one reason for the current high number of bears is that, in 2010, five different species of oak trees produced record high yields – which in turn, helped spike the bear population.

Last week, an Asheville man was charged with fatally shooting a bear and faces a $2,000 fine.

Starting next year, the N.C. Wildlife Commission will begin tagging black bears to track their booming population.

The agency is also considering extending the bear-hunting season, and including the central parts of the state, where bears were rarely seen until recent years.

Kelly points out that bears typically have more to fear from us, than we do from them.

"I can't think of the last black bear attack on a person in a suburban or an urban area,” he says. “Invariably what happens is, the bears are either moved or killed, either by being shot or by being hit by a car."

An estimated 18-20,000 bears live in North Carolina, with 6,000 in the mountains and 12,000 living on the coast.

Bears have even been spotted in unlikely areas of the Piedmont, and Wake County.

Stephanie Carroll Carson/Mike Clifford, Public News Service - NC