How Transylvania County Lead The State In Bear Conservation – Transylvania County, NC


Last updated 1/18/2021 at 3:47pm

These photos were snapped by Whitmire from his tree stand. (Photos by David Whitmire)

I can remember well as my grandfather rushed into the house excitedly saying, "I saw a bear track."

He worked for the N.C. Department of Transportation and saw the track off a gravel road in the Sapphire/Whitewater area of the county. The next morning was a Saturday and we drove the 20-to-30 minutes to the location so he could show me the track. Even seasoned local hunters back in the early 1970s were excited to find a fresh bear track.

It would be another 10 years before I witnessed my first in-person encounter with this iconic animal. I was bow hunting in Pisgah in the early 1980s, just northeast of Sliding Rock. The young bear silently crossed about 20 yards above me, feeding on acorns. Those first encounters left lasting impressions even after years of other encounters. In modern times, now it is "the good ole days for bear." This has not happened by accident, and our county was front and center of this great conservation success story.

The first residents in our county, long before the Europeans arrived, were the Cherokee. The Cherokee were substance hunters, and with the bow and arrow, atlati and the spear, they existed with the bears in a sustainable manner.

The first Europeans to arrive in our county were the long hunters. The long hunters were market hunters who often advanced a few years ahead of the Western settlement movement in our state. These hunters hunted game, selling for both food and hides either to the settlements to the East or even exporting them back to Europe. The famous botanist William Bartram in his travels through our area in 1774 noted, "The bears are yet too numerous."

After the long hunter era, the encroaching settlements' native game populations plunged. This was especially true for predator animals, such as the panther, wolf and bear, which were a direct threat to livestock and people moving into the new wilderness. By the early 1900s, overhunting and the landscape altering logging practices took its toll on the bear populations.

Even though most of the state was void of bears altogether, the Transylvania County area still had bears at this time. In the 1930s, even though we were now better managing the forest habitat with the new designation of Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, a major blow for the bear happened as the American Chestnut started to disappear.

The turnaround for bear populations happened in the early 1970s. Even though the rugged habitat of our area sustained some bear populations, the overall health of the bear populations statewide had got to the point in 1975, when a species of special concern was designated for bear.

In 1971, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission undertook a groundbreaking concept. With an example of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park formed in 1936 and our own Pisgah Game Preserve designated in 1917, bear sanctuaries were born. The Smokies had seen bear populations rise since it was a large undeveloped area that did not allow hunting. The plan was to take large tracts of mainly remote forest and make them off limits to hunting and designate them bear sanctuaries, which would protect breeding groups of bears that would then expand. Both white tailed deer and wild turkey had both seen great success with this type management, but with bear, no stocking or moving bears was planned. One of the original 28 sanctuaries across the state was our own Pisgah. The Pisgah Bear Sanctuary is located on the East side of Highway 276 to the Henderson County line. North Carolina was the first state in the country to use the sanctuary concept for managing bears. Over the past 20 years, Transylvania County expanded what is considered its defacto bear sanctuaries to approximately 18,000 acres, with the addition of DuPont State Recreational Forest and Gorges State Park. Surrounding our county, you will find to the North, Sherwood Bear Sanctuary in Haywood County and Panthertown Valley in Jackson County to the northwest. Bear sanctuaries was supported by hunters, wildlife advocates and other resource agencies and have proved to be another great conservation success story that our county has been directly involved in. Today, bear populations have expanded statewide from around 20 percent occurrence to up to 70 percent as an upcoming study soon may prove.

With success comes responsibility. Bear hunters harvested 53 bears in Transylvania County this past season. It is important to continue the sustainable harvest to maintain the carrying capacity demands on the habitat. It is also important as homeowners to be bear aware and not allow these animals to become dependent on food sources carelessly left near their home. Bears are more adaptable than wildlife biologists ever thought. Once believed an animal of only the backcountry, bear now thrive in highly densely populated urban areas that are nestled across our mountains. Using smart techniques while camping on food storage is a must. Many areas in Pisgah now require bear canisters for food storage while camping.

Today, I expect to have bear sightings throughout the fall hunting season. This past fall I had eight different bears in just one area I hunt. These were mostly sows and cubs, with one sow having three cubs and the other two. One memorable experience was when a boar came into the area. The two cubs immediately climbed a tree, and the sow, although outsized, chased the boar aggressively away, as I watched from my tree stand 15 yards away.

Another interesting observance was watching another sow quietly walk logs as to prevent making noise in the dry leaves. This continued down a long hill as she clearly walked from one down log to the next, following logs as much as possible on her path.

The success we witness today with our bear population is not an accident. Our forest, once again, as in the past, has been a leader in modern conservation and wildlife management. It is my hope in another 30 to 40 years that we will be celebrating bountiful Eastern woodland grouse populations as we now look on this awesome bird as our new species of concern.

For more information on the history, management and living with bears go to

This past fall, Whitmire said he had eight bear sightings in one area. A testament he believes to the success to bear conservation in the county.

(Whitmire is co-owner of Headwaters Outfitters and is actively involved in local conservation efforts, such as the French Broad River cleanup and wildlife rehabilitation programs. He is also chair of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Council.)


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