North Carolina’s Urban Black Bears are ‘Twice as Big’ as Rural Bears, Study Finds

by Jon D. B.

If you live in or around Asheville, NC, chances are you’ve seen a few very large black bears. According to a recent paper, this is no accident.

Through extensive, ongoing research by the North Carolina Urban/Suburban Bear Study, we now know that black bears around Asheville, North Carolina are twice as big as their rural counterparts. They’re also producing at half the age of wild country bears.

There’s no easy answer as to why, either. At least not yet. The study’s findings have been so shocking so far that the group has extended their research window into July 2024. But for the past eight years already, bears trapped around Asheville have been noticeably “big.” We’re talking “twice the size of rural black bears” big.

“We started to set out and document it, and you start to think, what might be causing this?” Chris DePerno, fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology professor at N.C. State University, tells local Citizen-Times. DePerno is co-author of the study, and he has a whole lot of thoughts on the matter.

The group study, Growth and Reproduction by Young Urban and Rural Black Bears, hit with the July edition of Journal of Mammology. Within, DePerno and his team took in data from 36 female bears found eating in or near Asheville, NC from 2014-2018. Each black bear was around 1-year of age. And DePerno believes that the readily available food of civilization may be the culprit of the urban bears’ supersizing.

“These urban bears are bigger than their rural counterparts, they’re reproducing early and we got some corroboration that anthropogenic food may be a part of this,” DePerno cites. 

1-Year-Old Rural Black Bears: 50 Pounds; 1-Year-Old Urban Black Bears: 100 Pounds

(Photo By RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Temporary sedation allowed the researchers to collect age, condition, sex, and weight data. Once catalogued, the team would then compare the data to that of 95 rural female yearling bears of North Carolina and Virginia’s national forests. And this is where things got truly interesting.

According to the study, these 36 urban black bears would weigh 100 pounds on average at 12-to-18 months.

Those rural bears? They were averaging 50 pounds at the exact same age. That’s half the size of Asheville’s urban bears.

Moreover, these urban black bears are reproducing at an alarming rate by two years of age. This is unprecedented information, as black bears are believed to only begin producing offspring at 3+ years. No rural bears have been recorded giving birth at 2-years-old.

In total, 131 yearling black bears would contribute data to the study. Across the board, Asheville’s urban bears were by far the biggest and reproducing earliest.

DePerno and his co-authors believe these big bears are gaining considerable weight as urban cubs. It is this that allows them to both breed early and continue to grow to record sizes.

Human sources, such as garden plants, fruit trees, birdseed and trash/food scraps in urban areas “provide black bears the calories to gain weight earlier in life than rural bears,” the study says.

And with an estimate of 7,000-8,000 black bears living in Western North Carolina, that’s a whole lot of big bruins.