Baby Season Can Mean Bear Conflicts

Baby bears enjoying some sunshine outside a brush den. (NCWRC photo)

North Carolina’s population boom is causing more conflict with another growing population – black bears.

The state’s bear conservation program, funded mostly by hunting fees, has been credited with the burgeoning numbers of black bears statewide. Human-bear encounters have increased in recent years, as bears discover handy food sources such as trash cans, dog food receptacles and even outdoor grills.

 State officials are cautioning that bears are also discovering human habitations can provide convenient places for having their babies during cold weather.

Black bears give birth to one to three cubs between November and April. While North Carolina’s bears don’t actually hibernate like bears in colder climates, they take extended naps in cold weather, and that’s usually when the cubs are born. What may initially appear to be just a pile of brush, a crawl space or a hollowed-out tree, may actually be the winter home of a bear, and possibly its cubs.

Dens come in many types and sizes, and exist in both wooded and developed areas, including neighborhoods. Bears have even been known to slumber in backyard brush piles, under decks and in crawl spaces. Generally they use rock and tree cavities, excavations under fallen trees, or they build ground nests for their long winter nap.

If disturbed by humans, a bear may be inadvertently flushed from the den, and if it’s a female bear with cubs, she may orphan her cubs if humans do not leave the area immediately. Biologists at the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission(NCWRC) recommend that if someone encounters a bear den, to remain calm, leave the area quickly and quietly, and do not disturb the den for the rest of the winter season. 

 “We have experienced an uptick in bears denning under houses and decks over the last 10 years, as well as unleashed dogs disturbing bears in dens,” said Colleen Olfenbuttel, NCWRC’s bear expert. “Homeowners can safely coexist with the bears until they leave the den in the spring. This is because a denning bear is only interested in getting their winter rest or, if it’s a female, caring for her cubs. Denning bears are not interested in engaging with people as long as people leave bear dens alone. Disturbances by humans or their pets may cause the bear to leave permanently and orphan her cubs.” 

 NCWRC staff have been receiving reports from the public about the discovery of bear dens since November. In one case, a homeowner discovered a female with newly born cubs underneath their back deck.  

 “The bear seems to have given birth in early January, when the homeowners were alerted to the sound of cubs crying under their deck,” said Ashley Hobbs, NCWRC’s statewide BearWise® coordinator. “After speaking with the homeowners and inspecting the den site, we recommended the best course of action was to limit disturbance around the deck area until the bear emerges with her cubs in the spring. This will avoid disturbing the female and potentially orphaning the cubs.”   

Bear den under house (NCWRC)
Bears are opportunistic homebuilders, and will establish temporary nests under homes, decks and porches, especially during birthing season. (NCWRC photo)

 Hobbs also developed a plan for the homeowners to close the space under the deck once the bears vacate to prevent future access by bears and other wildlife. “The homeowners were receptive to the recommendations, and supportive of the steps they could take to coexist with the bear family.” 

If the den is found under a deck, shed or crawl space, leave the area and call the NC Wildlife Helpline at 866-318-2401, or contact your local district wildlife biologist for further guidance. But in almost all cases, the best option is to simply stay away from the den area.  

If NCWRC staff determine a cub has been orphaned in a den, they will capture and bring it to one of the licensed bear cub rehabilitation facilities with the goal to eventually return it to the wild.

Since 1976, NCWRC has been rehabilitating and releasing orphaned black bear cubs through its cub rehabilitation program, which was one of the first of its kind in the country. NCWRC advises if someone believes a cub has been orphaned in a den, to not handle, feed or remove it from the area. Instead, note the location and contact the N.C. Wildlife Helpline at 866-318-2401, or your local district wildlife biologist for further guidance 

For more information on black bears visit