About 30 years ago, I received an unusual telephone call. An officer with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources called to say that a black bear had recently been spotted in northeast Richland County and was now resting comfortably in a pine tree above a mobile home park. After determining it was not a prank call, we dispatched a team of zoo employees to the scene, where they successfully tranquilized the bear. It fell unceremoniously into a green tarpaulin being held by zookeepers and DNR officers, who then relocated it to an undisclosed location.
A very rare occurrence at the time, this incident resulted in quite a bit of media coverage. Things have since changed. According to the DNR, South Carolina is now home to approximately 900 black bears. About 600 live in the mountains and upper Piedmont and another 300 in the coastal plain, mostly in Horry and Georgetown counties. However, black bears have been verified in many other South Carolina counties, including Richland and Lexington.
Black bears are one of three bear species native to the United States. The imposing brown, or grizzly, bear can only be found in parts of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Alaska (where 98 percent of the population lives). A small population of polar bears live in remote portions of northern Alaska. By far the most widely distributed bear is the American black bear, Ursus americanus. Approximately 900,000 black bears range throughout 40 of the 50 United States.
Black bears have adapted in many ways to cope with their environment. Breeding typically occurs in the summer, and the eggs of fertilized females often experience embryonic diapause (also known as delayed implantation), a trait found in many other species of mammals, including Riverbanks’ wallabies and koalas. The fertilized egg actually remains in a state of dormancy until environmental conditions are favorable. Only then does it attach to the wall of the uterus. Gestation lasts 235 days, and litters of one to three cubs are usually born in late January to early February. Their weight can vary widely from season to season, with pre-den weights in the fall being 30 percent higher than post-den weights in the spring.
Adults range from 5 to 6 feet in length and weigh anywhere from 200 to 600 pounds. Males can be 70 percent heavier than females. Even the name “black” can be misleading since individuals, including siblings, can display various shades of black, white, and brown. In the wild, black bears may live to about 20 years of age.
Like almost all bears, black bears are omnivorous, eating both plants and animals. Bears are known to eat a wide variety of food items, including carrion, insects, nuts, and berries. They are opportunistic feeders and will frequently seek out human activity for food sources, including garbage cans, bird feeders, and beehives. Due to their increasing population and their propensity to seek human-related food sources, the number of nuisance bears is on the increase.
Black bears are legally hunted in South Carolina. The practice is somewhat controversial, especially when bears are hunted with dogs. The hunting season, which has historically been restricted to the Upstate, is quite short, just two weeks, with one week allocated to hunting without dogs and one with. On average, about 60 bears are killed in the Upstate each year. Just recently, the DNR has expanded the same two-week season to the coastal range but restricts the use of dogs.
During my Riverbanks career, I was fortunate to work with three bear species: brown, polar, and spectacled, which is the only bear found in South America. I found all three to share the same traits. They are extremely inquisitive and intelligent but also highly unpredictable. They can be playful one minute and highly aggressive the next. I have no doubt that our native black bear shares these same qualities — fascinating, to say the least.