According to Auburn University’s Dr. Todd Steury, interactions between humans and black bears in Alabama increased last year and will likely continue to do so for the near future, at least in the northeast corner of the state.
Steury and graduate students John Draper and Chris Seals have completed a multiyear study of Alabama’s black bear population, funded by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division’s State Wildlife Grants Program.
The study concluded that Alabama has two black bear populations, one in the southwest corner of the state and one in the northeast. The southwest population is relatively stagnant, while the northeast population, with roots in North Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, is poised for significant expansion.
Steury said the Auburn study was prompted partly by the increase in the number of bear sightings in the Little River Canyon area.
“We think that most of Alabama, at one time, had black bears,” he said. “Of course, black bears were pretty much hunted to extinction in the state, with one very small population remaining near Mobile.”
Regarding the increased sightings in Northeast Alabama, Steury said, “We wanted to know if there is a viable population up there or just an occasional bear traveling through the area.”
After bear sightings last year in Heflin and Oxford, both close to Talladega National Forest, residents were concerned about the proximity of the animals to public recreation areas.
Population density numbers were derived from a DNA study.
We used two methods to gather the DNA information. One was eco-dogs. These dogs are trained to find bear scat. We took them into areas where we knew there were populations of bears. But the dogs are not cost-effective if you’re looking in areas where you’re not sure about the presence of bears. For that, we used hair snares. It’s basically a barbed-wire fence surrounding bait. The bear crosses the barbed wire to get to the bait and the barbs pull a little hair out. Then, we get DNA from the hairs.
In Northeast Alabama, hair snares were placed in most townships between interstates 59 and 20, and the National Park Service helped erect snares throughout Little River National Preserve, with about 100–150 hair snares being placed in the region overall.
The DNA indicates that the population in Northeast Alabama has more than doubled, going from about 12 bears to 30.
“We know those bears came from North Georgia,” Steury said. “We originally thought they might be from Central Georgia around Macon, but the DNA showed they came right down the mountain from Georgia.”
Of the Northeast Alabama population, Steury said: “The bears are breeding. We have seen numerous examples of sows with two or three cubs on our game cameras. We feel like the population there is going to grow, and there are still bears coming in from Georgia.”
Steury said the habitat in Jackson County and Talladega National Forest means it’s almost certain there will be more bears there in time.
The southwest population has a less optimistic outlook, with disappearing habitat, a lack of good den sites and a lack of genetic diversity factors.
Steury said a mailer was sent out to judge the public’s perception of bears.
“What we found is that people like bears,” he said. “They want to have bears in Alabama. Generally, they were not supportive of lethal management controls except in extreme situations, where there was clear danger to people.”
According to Steury, it’s rare for large predators to do anything but flee when they come in contact with humans.
“They can’t risk being injured,” he said. “If they’re injured, they can’t hunt. They can’t feed themselves and they’re going to die. They have no idea how hard or easy we would be to kill. They have no idea how dangerous we are, which is what basically keeps us safe.”
Steury said that last year’s sightings in Heflin and Oxford were of 2-year-old males that had been kicked out of the mom’s territory and were roaming to find new home territories.
They can cover thousands of miles. That’s why we see bears where they’re not supposed to be. They are juvenile males that are exploring for a place to settle down. The thing is, they never stay around. When I got the call from Heflin about what they should do, I told them to just leave it alone. In a day or two, it’ll be gone. If they get into somebody’s food or people start feeding them, that’s when they become problems.
Researchers have also put tracking collars on numerous bears in Alabama to determine home ranges and seasonal movement.