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Bears in the Upstate

June 16, 2008

Early Thursday morning, May 29, 2008, a bear was seen roaming along Woodruff Road in Greenville County. The black bear somehow found its way into a dense patch of woods near The Shops at Greenridge, just off of Interstate 85. The bear eluded wildlife officers and has not been seen since. One wildlife official commented that these occasional bears reported in the Upstate are usually juvenile male bears in search of new territory.

 “We don’t worry too much about them as long as they keep moving.”

Nan Lunden, writing for The Greenville News, reported that May and June are prime time for black bear sightings in the Upstate. Skip Still, from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, explained. “Bears that are born in January aren’t pushed out until the next spring,” he said. “Females don’t want them around while they’re breeding, and sometimes big bears will kill younger ones. June is usually the breeding season, and females are pushing the adolescent males out,” he said. “It’s analagous to the teenager going off to college.”

For some it is the college of hard knocks. Highways pose a  threat to young bears leaving their dens. On June 2, 2008, a law enforcement officer shot a male black bear sometime after midnight off of Highway 176 in Spartanburg County.

“The bear had been struck by a vehicle, and veterinary care wouldn’t have saved him,” Still said. “We don’t want animals to suffer.”

Another black bear was struck and killed by a vehicle in Anderson County on Interstate 85 about 11:30 that same night.

Bears have been seen recently in Aiken, Gray Court, Columbia, Greenville, and Spartanburg. So far this year, The Department of Natural Resources has had 81 reports of bears in populated areas of the Upstate. That is more than double the number at the same time last year.

The state’s chief black bear biologist, Skip Still, said bears are increasing both their numbers and their range. He estimates there are 900 bear in the mountains and between 200 and 300 in the Upstate. Last year, licensed hunters killed 58 bears during the two-week hunting season. “The harvest follows the pattern we have been seeing for years and follows all of our indicators,” said Still. “We have been telling folks that the black bear population in the mountains and piedmont is expanding both in number and range and all indications—surveys, human/bear interactions, sightings, road kills—confirm those statements.” Every bear harvested last year was in good health. Eight bears were over 400 pounds with the heaviest weighing 530 pounds.

The largest male bear on record in South Carolina weighed 594 pounds.

About twenty years I was backpacking with a group of Boy Scouts on the Appalachian Trail along the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. At a place named No Business Knob, we stayed awake most of the night listening to a bear tear apart a rotten log. The next morning we concluded that we had no business being on No Business Knob.

One scout said in relief, “At least we don’t have bears in Spartanburg.”

Twenty years ago bears in the Upstate were rare. I remember one being killed by an eighteen-wheeler on Interstate 26 in the southbound lane between the Landrum exit and the South Carolina Welcome Center.

About ten years ago, residents on Heathwood Circle on the east side of Spartanburg were surprised when a black bear wandered into their neighborhood. The young male had apparently traveled down Lawson Fork Creek before investigating a garbage can in someone’s backyard. The animal was tranquilized and transported back to the mountains.

Black bears travel into the Upstate from the mountains making their way along streams. They may take shelter in culverts and dense thickets. About 80 percent of a black bear’s diet is plant matter such as berries and nuts, while the other 20 percent is made up of insects and meat.

While one swipe of a black bear’s powerful front paw can kill a full-grown deer, bears much prefer grub worms to venison. Attacks on humans are rare. When a bear attacks a person it is usually because a bear has been provoked, or a mother bear believes her cubs are threatened.

Nobody has been attacked or killed by a bear in South Carolina for many years.

Skip Still offers a unique perspective for all of us to consider. “Bears can learn to live with humans. Can humans learn to live with bears?”


Bear sightings have been reported in every Upstate county during the past ten years. The population of black bears in the northern portions of Oconee, Pickens, Greenville, and Spartanburg counties is increasing. Bears have ranged further south into Anderson, Abbeville, Laurens, Newberry, Greenwood, McCormick, Saluda, and Edgefield counties.

“I guess they’ve hit their saturation density, and they’re moving out,” Still said.

On Friday morning, May 23, 2008, David and Barbara Nivens of the Green Acres neighborhood were disturbed by a commotion outside their bedroom window. A 300-pound black bear had stopped by for a visit. The furry interloper made a hasty departure toward the Springfield Subdivision.

Dawn Neely, my sister-in-law, is the Principal at Hendrix Elementary School, less than a mile from where the bear sighting occurred.

“All of the children were safe,” Dawn said. “But for the very first time in my career, we had a bear lockdown.”

The first, but maybe not the last.

-Kirk H. Neely
© H-J Weekly, June 2008

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