An image of a bear with a shiny coat of black fur was captured by a motion-activated camera in the Nances Creek area earlier this month, said Robert Carter, a Jacksonville State University biology professor. The image was sent via email to Carter, who studies the black bear population in and around the Talladega National Forest.
“The population is pretty low, but they’re around,” Carter said. “It’s becoming more common.”
The number of black bear sightings in the area has been increasing, prompting some to believe the bear’s population is on the rise here, Carter said. In addition to the black bear seen by the camera in Nances Creek, at least three more bear sightings have been reported in recent months.
Two sightings occurred at or around Cheaha State Park, and one sighting occurred in Piedmont on private property. An isolated sighting isn’t an indication that the bear population is growing, but multiple reports in one year is a signal to researchers that “something is going on,” Carter said.
The black bear once was common in Alabama, but the animal nearly disappeared from much of the state by 1920. Scientists say there were two main causes for the bear population’s decline: the destruction of its habitat and over-hunting.
“The bear is a part of the ecosystem that’s been gone for a long time,” Carter said.
A significant increase in the black bear population could be beneficial to several smaller species which thrive in the same habitat as the larger, fur-bearing animal, said Todd Steury, an Auburn University professor who tracks Alabama’s black bear population.
“It’s what we call an umbrella effect,” Steury said.
Lesser-known species such as the long-tailed weasel and the spotted skunk, both of which are present in Alabama, thrive in the same habitats that are good for the black bear, Steury said.
Evidence to support the idea that the bear population is growing mount with each documented sighting, but there is little scientific proof of the increase in the local wilderness and forest.
Sightings reported by the public are not always reliable sources of information for researchers. Sometimes people mistake other animals as bears, Carter said.
“A lot of people will say that they saw a black bear and they didn’t,” Carter said. “It might just be a black lab they saw at dusk.”
Carter and other researchers continue to look for more evidence of the bear’s presence in northeast Alabama.
A lone tuft of black bear fur in a barbed wire hair snare was the only sign of the bears’ presence during a JSU population study conducted in the Dugger Mountain Wilderness area earlier this year. The snare, surrounded by food for the bear, was designed to collect fur samples.
“I think that’s OK, because we know the population is low,” Carter said.
A study of the black bear population at Little River Canyon National Preserve near Fort Payne offered more definitive answers about the black bear population in that area. The study, which ended in October, confirmed what some scientists already were sure of – there is a sustainable black bear population there.
Researchers found two female black bears with cubs and evidence of 16 to 19 bears in the preserve. The sustainable black bear population at Little River Canyon didn’t exist a decade ago, Steury said.
Scientists believe most of the black bears roaming the local forest and wilderness areas are males coming south from Tennessee and Georgia. Within 10 years, Carter said, a sustainable black bear population – one with females and cubs – will exist in or around the Talladega National Forrest.
While bears are sometimes portrayed in popular couture as violent predators, Carter said local people have no reason to fear the black bear. It lives mostly on a diet of plants and insects, eating meat only rarely, and is easily scared away from people, he said.
“Just respect them,” Carter said. “The chances of you being hurt by a person are a lot greater than the chances of you being hurt by a bear.”
Staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.