Bears here, bears there, bears, bears everywhere

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About two weeks ago, Husky Kirkwood, a geezer from Gold Hill called to inform me that Chris Busby, a sports writer for the Lafayette Sun pulled up to his house and told him, “I saw a black bear along the road (St. Rt. 147), just south of your driveway. I tried to get a picture, but couldn’t get my camera out before he left.”

Not long afterward, Husky was contacted by three others who’d seen the bear, and later was told by a woman who lives on a dirt road about a mile north of Husky’s estate that she had seen what appeared to be a momma bear with her cub.

Those are not the first reports of one or more bears in our area. On June 20, 2011, a “small black bear” was reportedly seen “just outside the Opelika city limits on the Old Columbus Road.” On the following day, a black bear was sighted near Valley, close to Lake Harding. During the same month and year, a bear was run over and killed on the Georgia side of the Chattahoochee River in Harris County. And a year or so ago, a reputable source reported having seen a bear in Macon County.

It hasn’t been too long ago since most bear sightings occurred in Baldwin and Mobile counties, where a small population has been known to occur since historic records were kept. I can recall an instance of a bear’s having been shot and killed on Chandler Mountain, decades ago. It was reported in most, if not all, of the state’s newspapers.

Following Husky’s reports, I googled “sightings of black bears in Alabama.” (I’ll have you know that I have learned to use an ipad despite my limited cerebral capacity to master the complicated technique.) Following are some things I learned. In addition to the aforementioned, sightings of black bears have been reported in an urban area of Jefferson County. There are several reports from Barbour County including two cubs. In Aug. 2011, a bear was seen along Interstate 65 near Evergreen. And in 2011, bear sightings were also reported near Holly Pond, in Cullman County; in Cleburne County; around Gadsden, in Etowah County; in Double Springs in Winston County; around Boaz in Marshall County; and in Cherokee County and Clay County. Auburn was identified as another place where a bear was sighted, but I could not get any information on this reported sighting.

And then there was the bear that entered northeastern Alabama and was tracked across the state all the way to Mississippi.

The bear population is obviously increasing in Alabama. Tracy Nelson, a biologist with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources says, “Bear sightings are significantly up from about four years ago.”

The question is, “Where are the ‘new bears’ coming from?” Breeding populations of black bears are known to occur in the Chattahoochee National Forest in northwestern Georgia, in the Tensaw-Mobile River swamp in southwestern Alabama, in the Florida panhandle on Eglin Air Force base and in the Apalachicola River swamp.

An area in central Georgia has an unusually high population of black bears. Residents of the area, consisting of Bibb, Houston, and Twiggs counties see bears frequently and petitioned the state wildlife authorities to allow a bear hunt, complaining that bears were so numerous that they had become a nuisance. The authorities responded by permitting a one-day regulated hunt in November of last year. Hunters on that day killed 34 bears, ten percent of the estimated total number inhabiting central Georgia. Half of the bears killed were females, and the fact that so many females were removed from the population concerned some wildlife biologists. All the bears killed were from Twiggs County.

Florida’s bear population is increasing. Authorities in that state received 4,000 calls from residents seeing bears last year, nearly a four-fold increase from ten years ago. In 1970, an estimated population of 300 bears existed within the state, and today the size of the estimated population is 3,000.

On extremely rare occasions, black bears will attack people, but their danger to humans is exaggerated. In the past 100 years, only three humans have been killed by black bears, a miniscule number when compared with deaths caused by stinging insects, dogs, horses, and even cows. Usually, black bears exhibiting aggressive behavior toward humans are acting in defense of their cubs or their food supply. People should never approach a bear accompanied by one or more cubs or when it is feeding.

For more information on black bears, or to report a black bear sighting, contact the Alabama Black Bear Alliance (ABBA) at alabamablackbearalliance.org.

Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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