FAYETTEVILLE – Lovesick teenage boys often carve their initials into trees and tables.
Lovesick bears share the same habit – if not the penmanship skills.
That’s why a string of utility poles in the Beaver Dam community of Cumberland County recently were chewed and shredded. And that’s why people in the region may be surprised to see large, furry strangers ambling through the neighborhood in pre-dawn hours.
Gradually, black bears are moving into the area. A population spurt over the past decade, combined with recent years of drought and continued human encroachment, make these surprising – though thus far uneventful – encounters between man and bear in the Cape Fear region more likely.
Frank Bullard, 41, a Beaver Dam resident, has seen bears from time to time in the woods near his home. Sometimes, he says, he can find tracks in the soft farm fields nearby. A few years ago, neighbors gathered to watch a family of black bears feasting in a nearby field of peanuts. He says it’s all part of the trade-off for the country quiet.
But when he and his son, Colby, spotted a string of power poles swatted and chewed up to 6 feet off the ground last month, he was impressed.
“They must really like whatever is in those poles,” Bullard said, lightly checking the teeth and claw marks in one pole. “I don’t know what they’d like about creosote, but it must be tasty.”
Wildlife expert Robbie Norville said the bears responsible are probably no more destructive than your average teenager - and probably driven by the same hormonal urges.
“Black bears are very smart and very curious,” said Norville, a biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “And this time of year, a whole new group is going into breeding season for the first time.
“In a sense, these juvenile male bears are like 18-year-olds with a pocket full of cash and a tank full of gas. They’re going to cause some property damage and get in trouble.”
A few of their cousins already stumbled into town earlier this year. Twice in May, bears wandered through a subdivision near Hope Mills during pre-dawn hours.
“It’s the time of year where the young males are wandering,” Norville said. “It’s part of their coding, and it helps create a diversity in the species. When we get calls from concerned people, it’s usually because a bear has torn up their bird feeder or gotten into the trash.
“Odds are it was just someone passing through,” he said. “But if you’re going to see one in a human environment, this is the time of year.”
Though wild animals, black bears generally are not aggressive. There has never been a fatality in eastern North Carolina from a black bear attack, though people have been injured after surprising a mother bear and her cubs.
The average weight for a female is about 200 pounds, and an adult male weighs about 300 pounds. The largest black bear on record was a male bear from North Carolina weighing 880 pounds.
A generation ago, black bear sightings were truly rare. Once common along the rivers and bay areas of eastern North Carolina, the animals were a source of food and clothing among American Indians and early settlers.
In time, they became sport, as well. Hunted and hounded into the most remote swamps along the coast, bears were rarely seen by humans.
In 1971, it was estimated that about 4,000 black bears lived in North Carolina, either in the mountains or along the coast. In the wake of efforts by the state’s wildlife commission, that number today has tripled, and the acreage that is home to the bears has grown to more than 10 million - nearly two-thirds the area of North Carolina.
In eastern North Carolina, where most of the bears live, their habitat stayed east of Interstate 95 until the past decade.
“The greatest population is still up in the northeastern part of the state,” Norville said. “There’s plenty of room, plenty of food and not as many people there.”
To the south, as the bear population began to recover, juveniles began wandering to the north and west. They followed creeks and lowlands off the Cape Fear, Black and Lumber rivers. Over the past decade, the bears’ range has crossed Interstate 95 in Cumberland and Harnett counties.
Bears, especially juveniles, have a tremendous urge to wander. And because they are able to run about 30 mph and swim well, they can cover a lot of ground.
“Awhile back, a black bear was spotted in the suburbs of Raleigh,” Norville said. “We suspect he followed the Cape Fear River and then up a tributary until he ended up there.”
That urge to roam comes with encouragement from their parents, he said. Mama Bear doesn’t want the kids underfoot, and Papa Bear begins to see the boys as potential rivals as they grow up.
“It’s a good time to hit the highway,” Norville said. “They follow the rivers or conduits and set up territory of their own.”
Part of setting up that area includes marking territory, by chewing and shredding trees – or in the case of Beaver Dam, utility poles.
“Sometimes, they’ll climb up the pole a bit before latching on with their teeth,” Norville said. “Some people see these teeth marks 8 feet up the pole and say ‘Man! That’s a huge bear!’ when it’s just a bear who likes to do some climbing.”
The bears mark the pole by rubbing them with scent glands behind their ears. The pole then becomes not only a warning for potential rivals but the urine equivalent of a Match.com post.
Besides, for some reason, the bears really seem to enjoy the flavor.
“If I’m a bear, I’d rather eat some of the sweet corn that’s coming in about now,” Norville said. “But there’s something in the preservatives that bears can’t resist.”
Regional utility companies are aware of the bear’s unusual habit, but say it hasn’t been a problem.
“We don’t have to replace many poles,” said Cathy O’Dell of South River Electric Membership Corp. “It’s certainly not the top reason for replacement.
“And if we took a pole out because a bear chewed on it, they’d probably chew on the replacement, too.”
If all goes as expected, the chewing should subside as summer turns to fall. At least until next year.
“It’s estimated that each adult male bear covers an area of up to 10,000 acres,” Norville said. “That means next year, a new bunch of juveniles will be on the move again.”
And another batch of power poles will end up on the menu.