Research suggests the bears are coming
November 18, 2017
By Ben Cunningham
The Anniston Star

The number of black bears wandering the forests of Northeast Alabama may have doubled over four years, and is set to keep growing, according to researchers at Auburn University.

The researchers, in a study published Nov. 8 in the scientific journal PLOS One, examined the genetic health of two Alabama black bear populations, one near Mobile and another in the northeastern corner of the state, centered on the Little River Canyon National Preserve near Fort Payne. The study concluded that the Mobile-area bears are isolated from others of their kind, but that the northeastern bears are linked to a larger population in northern Georgia that may make it easier to continue growing their own numbers.

The researchers say there’s plenty of room for bears to thrive in the mountainous forests of Northeast Alabama, and that it’s probably only a matter of time before they take full advantage of it.

“There is a lot of good land up there for bears to spread into, and they’re definitely not utilizing anywhere near a meaningful percentage of it yet,” said John Draper, a former Auburn graduate student who led the genetic research as part of the requirements for his master’s degree. He’s now a research associate at Utah State University, where he’s working on projects involving bobcats and coyotes.

Bear sightings in northeastern Alabama have become more common in recent years.

Sheriff’s deputies and smartphone-wielding residents followed one bear through Alexandria in May 2015. The next month a bear was seen wandering through Heflin. The following summer there were sightings in Oxford and in Talladega County.

For bears, encounters with humans sometimes haven’t ended well. In May 2016, an Alpine resident struck and killed a bear with her car while on her way to work. That November, a Clay County man shot a black bear with a crossbow while hunting deer. That man later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of hunting during a closed season. And a Delta man in 2015 was charged with firing a gun at the bear that made its way through the town that month.

Different bears, different smells

Draper, fellow graduate student Chris Seals, and their graduate adviser at Auburn, Todd Steury, worked to collect samples of bears’ fur in “hair snares” — three-sided rings of barbed wire with bait hung out of bears’ reach in the center. When bears went over the wire to get to the bait, they’d sometimes get tufts of fur stuck in the barbs.

Snares were set up in dozens of sites where the Mobile-area and northeastern populations were thought to be active. The researchers set the snares from August through November, in 2012 through 2015, and checked them every 6 to 8 days, removing any samples for analysis.

The bait? Canned fish or what the study describes as “flavoring extracts.”

“I used Jelly Belly snow-cone mix,” Seals said. “And basically I would change the flavors out weekly, because different bears like different smells.”

The researchers also collected some scat samples — bear poop — when it was found in the study areas. In all, they collected 1,935 samples of hair and scat, and extracted the bears’ DNA.

Draper spent months analysing the samples in a laboratory at the University of Idaho, where two other researchers — Lisette Waits and Jennifer Adams — also were involved in the project. According to the study, the DNA appears to have come from 135 individual bears in the Mobile area, and 32 bears in the northeastern region. All the samples from the northern area came from a tight region around Little River Canyon.

The researchers also compared the DNA samples to samples from black bear populations in other states, to determine the Alabama bears’ relationships to those groups.

While the Mobile-area bears showed no strong links to any other black bear groups, the population in northeastern Alabama appears to have been founded by a small group from northern Georgia. That may turn out to have been a momentous event in local black bear history. While male bears roam widely, the researchers said, females tend to settle very close to their mothers.

“So, it’s kind of surprising that the population at Little River even exists,” Steury said, “because what it took was some female to move a little further than she normally would have into Little River from North Georgia.”

‘Make yourself big’

Draper said the researchers observed many females in the northeastern population birthing litters from which three or four cubs survived into adulthood. Normally, only one to two black bear cubs per litter survive, he said. There’s not enough data to say so for sure, but the researchers suspect that may be part of the reason the northeastern group is growing so rapidly.

“Because there’s so much space and so little pressure for habitat, we believe these bears are able to sustain much larger litters because they have abundant resources to feed their cubs as well as abundant space to avoid other bears,” Draper said.

The researchers believe bears may eventually colonize other wild areas in northeastern Alabama, especially the Talladega National Forest. If that happens, Steury thinks it’s just as likely the newcomers will arrive from Georgia as from Little River Canyon. Black bear populations in Georgia, he said, are expanding rapidly. New groups founded by Georgia bears seeking resources will likely keep growing — not unlike the growth of human populations in the suburbs of Atlanta’s ever-expanding metro region, he agreed.

“Talladega has great bear habitat,” Steury said, “so it’s entirely possible for a bear population to set up shop in Talladega. And if so, people in places like Anniston and Heflin are going to need to learn how to live with black bears.”

That means, mostly, leaving them alone. Because bears are omnivores that will eat “anything they can get their paws on,” Draper said, keeping outdoor trash cans secured is important. Anyone who encounters a bear from a safe distance should simply wait for it to leave and report its presence to local authorities, the researchers said.

Anyone who encounters a bear by surprise up close and on foot should not run away, Steury said.

Instead, “make yourself big,” he said, and back away slowly while making noise to ensure the bear knows you’re there and thinks of you as dangerous.

Ready for bears

While none of the snares set in the Talladega National Forest yielded any hair samples for the analysis, the researchers later got some help setting snares from Munford school students.

Kimberly Murray, science resource teacher for Munford’s schools, said high school and middle school students learned how to set and bait snares in the southern end of the northeastern research area. Groups of four to six students at a time traveled with teachers to check for samples once a week in 2015 and 2016.

The partnership, supported by the U.S. Forest Service, grew out of an existing alliance between Munford’s school and Auburn. Murray said the work fit right into the school’s project-based learning approach.

“We’re creating projects for the kids, but when you can make it real-world, plus you’re helping a professor that just doesn’t have the resources to be able to do a lot of research in this area, then what an opportunity for our kids to fill that void,” Murray said.

All the work done by Steury and his students with bears has been funded with a grant from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. An earlier component of the project surveyed the public’s attitudes toward bears and using deadly force to control them.

“Most of the people generally liked having bears and were opposed to lethal control,” Steury said.

Seals is now heading a different part of the project that tracks bears using GPS-enabled radio collars. He hopes to learn more about how and where bears move, especially in the Mobile area, where he grew up. That’s where he saw his first bear, in 1998 at age 16 while riding through a hunting preserve on a four-wheeler.

“I had a female with two cubs step out in front of me,” he said. “At that time no one really knew we even had bears.”

Seals and his fellow researchers think more Alabamians will have encounters like that as bear populations grow. As long as the community is educated about bears, they think, those encounters can end well for members of both species.

“People need to be ready for that,” Draper said. “Just be ready to to see them. And if you see a bear, that’s a good day.”