At least two people have reported seeing black bears at Cheaha State Park in recent months. Another black bear was hit and killed by a vehicle at Little River Canyon National Preserve in December. In addition to those encounters, a wildlife camera recently caught an image of one full-sized black bear in Piedmont on private property.
The increased number of sightings has prompted research on whether the black bear’s population is on the rise. Jacksonville State University graduate student David Seals did a 12-week surveillance study to see if the bear was thriving on Dugger Mountain, south of Piedmont. Additionally, the Little River Canyon National Preserve is requesting funding to study the bears’ habitat at the park.
“We started getting more reports of bears so we wanted to find out just how many are here,” said Robert Carter, the JSU biology professor who oversaw Seals’ work. “We wanted to get an idea of the population size.”
Even though scientists believe the bear population is increasing here, they believe there are still relatively few black bears in the area.
Seals’ research, completed in Calhoun County this year, shows that on Dugger Mountain, the black bear population is “pretty low,” Carter said.
On the mountain, Seals set up hair snares, coils of barbed wire that encircle a stash of food. The snares are designed to collect bits of hair as bears pass through to collect the bait.
Seals conducted the survey for six spring weeks and six summer weeks. He collected just one tuft of hair, Carter said.
“That doesn’t surprise me because the population here is pretty low,” Carter said. “We were pretty lucky to get what we got.”
About 20 bears are believed to live in the area of the Little River Canyon National Preserve. That’s a small number, but it’s up from just a few years ago when wildlife biologists believed about half as many bears lived there, said Larry Beane, a park ranger at the preserve.
The number of black bear sightings at the national preserve has fluctuated over the years, Beane said. A few sightings occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Then there was a lull, but since the late 1990s, sightings have increased, especially in the past five years, he said.
The black bear population declined greatly around 1900 when there was rapid deforestation, Carter said.
Lately though, people are spotting more bears in and around the national preserve. A mother bear was killed near Little River Canyon a few years ago when it wandered into someone’s yard and frightened the homeowner, Beane said. He added that it’s not clear what happened to the bear’s four cubs.
“They may still be in the area by now. If they survived, they’re probably having babies,” he said.
That bear was later examined by a wildlife biologist. A tag found on its ear revealed that the bear migrated to Alabama from Georgia.
That’s a pattern that biologists believe many of the bears are following, but they believe males are more likely to end up across the state line. That’s because males roam greater distances looking for habitat and food, Carter said.
The black bear, like many wild species, is skittish and will likely run away if it comes across humans. The best thing people can do if they run into a black bear is flail their arms and yell to scare it away, he said.
“It’s got to decide whether you’re food, something not to worry about, or if you’re a threat,” Carter said. “They can usually be scared.”
The bear, much like a hog, will eat just about anything, experts say. They dine mostly on nuts, berries and foliage, Carter said.
Biologists and park specialists such as Carter and Beane welcome the bear back into the state’s ecosystem. It’s been too scarce for too long, they say.
“I think it’s good,” Carter said. “It adds to the diversity of this part of the state.”
Staff Writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544.