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April 23, 2023

About thirty years ago, 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 inspected the decaying wood. The animal had found a midnight snack of grubs. We decided that we had no business being on No Business Knob.

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

That young man is now a seasoned adult. As he has grown, so has the black bear population in the Upstate.

I learned that bears had moved into our county twenty years ago. 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. Twenty years ago, bears in the Upstate were rare. I was told by a South Carolina Department of Wildlife Officer that about twenty-six bears were living in the northern part of Spartanburg County.

By 2008, these large animals were becoming more common. Early one morning in late May 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 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 searching for new territory.

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

In May 2008, Residents 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, was then 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 probably not the last.

The Greenville News reported that May and June are prime times for black bear sightings in the Upstate. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources explains that bears born in January aren’t pushed out until the following spring. Females don’t want them around while breeding. Sometimes, big bears kill younger ones. June is usually the breeding season, and females push adolescent males out. It’s analogous 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. In June 2008, a law enforcement officer shot an injured male black bear sometime after midnight on Highway 176 in Spartanburg County.

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

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

So far this year, The Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) has had 81 reports of bears in populated areas of the Upstate. Bears have been seen recently in Aiken, Gray Court, Columbia, Greenville, and Spartanburg.

In 2022, there were at least three bear sightings in residential areas of Spartanburg County. One was spotted at a home on Parris Bridge Road in Boiling Springs. A small bear was seen walking across the campus of Wofford College. The youngster was long gone when animal control arrived in response. Speculation was that the critter had been up most of the night at a fraternity party. Perhaps the same bear was sighted nearby at Barnet Park. Residents of Duncan Park just off Union Street reported multiple sightings of a large black bear roaming their neighborhood.

This year, a bear has been seen in Converse Heights near Lawson’s Fork Creek. Two weeks ago, the people of downtown Spartanburg were surprised to see a bear visiting Main Street. The bear had climbed a tree on the lawn of First Presbyterian Church.

Black bears (Ursus americanus) are the largest land mammals in South Carolina. They have thick fur that can vary in color. The most common color is black with a light brown snout. They have a broad head with rounded ears set back on the head. The rump of a black bear is higher than the front shoulders. They have good eyesight and a keen sense of smell. Black bears are excellent climbers and good swimmers.

Male black bears are larger than females. When food is plentiful, older bears may weigh 400-500 pounds. The largest black bear recorded in South Carolina was 609 pounds. The average life expectancy is 18 years in the wild.

Black bears require large expanses of forest dominated by a diversity of hardwoods, pines, and shrubs intermixed with fruit-bearing vegetation such as blackberries, pokeberries, and blueberries. Wetlands such as swamps and bays also provide suitable habitats. However, black bears are adaptable. Black bears can be happy almost anywhere if they can find adequate food sources and have appropriate den sites.

These fascinating critters can be found throughout North America. Here in South Carolina, there are two populations of black bears, one in the mountains and upper Piedmont and one in the coastal plain. The Upstate group numbers close to 1000 individual bears. The Lowcountry resident bears include about 300 animals. The range for males can be 18 to 160 square miles, while the home range for females is smaller, around 6-19 square miles.

Black bears will travel considerable distances to find adequate food sources. A shortage of natural food and lack of rainfall can cause their home territory to expand. In addition, juvenile bears, especially the males, must scatter to find new home territories. Dispersing young male bears have been sighted in every county in South Carolina. These bears are usually transient and do not stay in the area long. They typically move south from the mountains traveling along stream and rivers.

Black bears will feed on whatever is readily available. These mammals are primarily vegetarian. Eighty percent of their natural diet comprises berries, nuts, and plant matter. But they are also carnivorous. They enjoy insects and meat. Bears use their incredible sense of smell to find alternative food sources such as garbage, bird feeders, outdoor pet food, bee hives, and crops. These close encounters with humans draw them into urban areas, making them a nuisance.

The state’s chief black bear biologist said bears are increasing their numbers and range. Recent estimates indicate there is a population of 900 bears in the Upstate. The SCDNR reports that the black bear populations in the mountains and piedmont are expanding in number and range. All measurable data, such as surveys, human/bear interactions, sightings, road kill, and legal and illegal hunting, are confirmation. Every bear harvested last year was healthy, the heaviest weighing over 500 pounds.

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

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCSCDNR) reported last year that bear sightings in Spartanburg County are “extremely common,” though most are in rural areas.

About ten years ago, residents of 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 one of our many southeast-flowing streams. They may take shelter in culverts and dense thickets.

While one swipe of a black bear’s powerful front paw can kill a full-grown deer, bears much prefer grubworms to venison.

Attacks on humans are rare. When a bear attacks a person, it is usually because the 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.

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

So what can we do to keep bears away from our own backyards? Here are practical suggestions from the SCDNR.

Although black bears are the largest land mammal in South Carolina, they are not generally considered dangerous, and attacks upon humans are relatively uncommon.

Human-bear contact should be avoided if at all possible. The highest priority for avoiding contact is proper storage of anything that could attract bears. Black bears have excellent senses of smell.

  • Birdfeed and feeders: If a bear starts getting into your bird feeders, take them down and put them away for a while; the bear will move on quickly.
  • No exposed garbage: Keep garbage in tightly shut or bear-proof trash cans. Waste left in the open, an available dumpster, or in the back of a truck is an open invitation for a bear.
  • Pet food storage: Store pet food properly if kept outside. Put pet food in airtight storage containers, and don’t leave leftover food out in the open.
  • Clean grills: Keep charcoal and gas grills covered and clean to keep food odors from attracting bears.
  • Beehives: If you’re going to have beehives in bear territory, protect your investment with an electric, bear-proof fence.
  • Absolutely no feeding: A bear that becomes accustomed to having food provided is an accident waiting to happen. Feeding bears promote nuisance behavior.
  • Keep wildlife wild: Never approach a bear for any reason, especially for a photo. Bears can defend themselves. Give bears their space, and they will move on.

               As for that bear up a tree on the lawn of First Presbyterian Church on Thursday morning of Holy Week, the pastoral staff named him Zacchaeus for the tax collector in Jericho who wanted to see Jesus. I suggested that the bear came down from the mountains with some ardent Evangelical preacher to see what Maundy Thursday was all about.

The poor bear was tranquilized and taken from the church. I’ve seen that happen to a lot of folks, especially when I was preaching. I know he was being relocated. I am pretty sure the bear was hungry and looking for food. I hope the driver of his transport stopped by the Beacon Drive-In and let traumatized animal dumpster dive on his way out of town.


Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please consider sharing your time or resources with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Post Office Box 11710, Columbia, South Carolina 29211-1710,, 803-734-3833. I would encourage you to subscribe to South Carolina Wildlife Magazine. It is a beautiful and interesting publication. 803-734-3859. Thank you.

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