Black bears once inhabited North Carolina in robust numbers. However, when the early European settlers arrived, bear populations were often killed to protect people and investments (such as livestock). By the early 20th century, black bears were found only in North Carolina's mountain ranges and lowland swamp areas. However, black bears have successfully adapted to loss of habitat, food and the introduction of humans and wildlife species into the state. Now there are roughly 11,000 black bears found in almost half of North Carolina's land area. Another mammal that lives in the state is the fox squirrel. A lively and large tree squirrel, this species features dinstinct color variations of black, white, gray and red. Often found in old-growth pine and oak forests, the fox squirrel is easy to spot, as it can be as long as 2 feet and can weigh more than 2 pounds. They commonly feed on nuts, acorns, berries and plants. While moderate numbers of fox squirrels live within the state, their populations have diminished over the years because of deforestation. Other mammals frequently found within the state of North Carolina include coyotes, Eastern cottontail rabbits, raccoons and white-tailed deer.
A favorite icon of the coastal North Carolina waters is the charming snowy egret. Identifiable by its white feathers, black legs, yellow feet, long bills, foraging skills and lively personality, the snowy egret can often be found wading in wetlands. It can have a wingspan as wide as 3 feet across. While the snowy egret enjoys healthy numbers in North Carolina today, it was close to extinction in the early 1900s, when poachers hunted the beautiful species for their plumage. Thousands of egrets were killed so that their white feathers could adorn women's hats. As news of the decreased population came into light, a few breeding populations along the coast by Wilmington became protected by state law. Today, the snowy egret is listed as a "Species of Special Concern." Another bird found in the state of North Carolina is a large bird of prey, the osprey. Measuring 2 feet tall and having a wing span as long as a full-grown adult male, the osprey is a striking bird species with excellent flying ability. It can be found in the coastal plains of North Carolina during the spring and summer, where fish populations are plentiful. Ospreys are directly affected by human use of pesticides. During the 1960s, when DDT and similar products were used in abundance, many fish in North Carolina's waters contained high levels of negative pesticides. Therefore, as osprey fed on the contaminated fish, they experienced several side effects: Osprey eggshells would thin and crack, adult ospreys would become sterile and the species' population inevitably decreased. Since government regulations and bans on pesticide use came into effect, ospreys have rebounded to healthy numbers. Because of the species' sensitivity to the environment, activists continue to carefully watch and study the osprey.
Saltwater and freshwater fishing is a favorite pastime in North Carolina. One of the most desired freshwater, native gamefish is the largemouth bass. This fish is known to thwart fishing lines, jump from the water and resist a catch, making the sport exciting for anglers. The largemouth bass has a long, lower jaw, weighs up to 15 pounds, can live up to 10 years and feeds on frogs, insects and worms. Despite increased water pollution levels, this fish species has abundant populations across the state (especially in the Piedmont and Coastal Regions). Another fish species, the Atlantic sturgeon, is found off the coast of North Carolina. It feeds along the ocean bottom, has a thick, bony skin, can live as long as 60 years, weighs up to 500 pounds, grows to 9 feet in length and is one of the oldest fish species known to humans. When the Atlantic sturgeon swims toward the depth of the ocean, it can migrate great distances (as far as 1,000 miles). This fish species has been directly affected by humans in several ways: Commercial fisherman catch their eggs for caviar, dam construction limits their spawning areas and water pollution has altered their breeding habits. Government agencies currently study the Atlantic sturgeon to determine if the categorization of its species should be endangered or threatened.