Bears in our backyard: Celebrating Eastern Carolina's wildlife

PLYMOUTH, WASHINGTON COUNTY (WITN) Nestled along the Roanoke River, just miles from the Albemarle Sound, Plymouth, North Carolina is not only the largest town in Washington County—it’s home to the largest black bears in the world.

"The average adult black bear is 200 pounds. For us, a 500-pound bear is very common,” said Tom Harrison, Director of the NC Black Bear Festival/ Washington County Travel Tourism Director.

Harrison says black bears in Eastern Carolina reach their massive size because they have access to high protein crops and mild winters and that it’s not uncommon to see 20 or 30 bears roaming the farmlands on any given afternoon.

“They estimate the population of black bears in Eastern North Carolina to be 20,000. There are black bear sightings in all 100 counties in the state. It's expanding and everyone has the opportunity to see one occasionally,” Harrison explained.

If you do have the opportunity to see one, Harrison says there’s no reason to fear them.

“They have a prey mentality, not a predator mentality. Instead of them looking at you as food, they're looking at themselves as ‘don't eat me.’ They run away. The last thing they want to do is eat a person, they're afraid of people,” Harrison reassured.

With that knowledge in mind, WITN’s own Liz Bateson and Jim Howard set out on a black bear tour at a Hyde County farm. In less than two hours, 16 black bears were sighted, with some standing just 20 yards away.

It's this unique feature that people like Harrison are using to rebrand communities here in the east.

Plymouth has since taken on the brand of black bear, with everything from a water tower with a bear on it to police cars and utility vehicles sporting bear logos and stores sticking to the bear theme in their name.

But Harrison says their biggest branding effort to date is the Black Bear Festival.

“It’s redefining Plymouth," he explained.

The Black Bear Festival is celebrating its fifth year in just a few weeks. In its short history, it's won a number of awards, including best festival in the state.

“It's never happened to any festival to have that much success before and yet, we did it right here in this little community of Plymouth,” Harrison said.

The festival features everything from airboat rides, a motorcycle stunt show, fireworks, and of course, black bear tours.

If you're lucky enough to go on the tour and see a black bear for yourself, Harrison says “don’t run, don't fear. Just stand there and enjoy the moment because it will soon be a memory.

A memory that will put communities like Plymouth on the map for years to come.

This year's Black Bear Festival will run from June 1-2. WITN is a proud sponsor.