As the number of black bear sightings increase, Munford students have joined efforts to collect data as experts assure residents there’s nothing to worry about.
“We get reports of bears every year,” said Gloria Neilsen, the U.S. Forest Service Talladega District Ranger. The U.S. Forest Service even received a recent report, she said, of a bear with cubs near the Turnip Seed Campground, where a group of Boy Scouts was camping.
Neilsen said black bears are normally seen close to roads by commuters.
“We receive more black bear sighting calls in the spring when people are trying to enjoy the outdoors,” she said.
Because of the numerous reports, the U.S. Forest Service has begun using bear-proof garbage containers at its recreation sites.
“We started using them about two or three years ago when we started getting reports of black bear sightings,” Neilsen said.
A growing population of black bears live in the Talladega National Forest, which stretches north and south covering more than 600 square miles of Alabama.
“I think most of the bears around here are juvenile males,” said Johnny Ponder, a member of the Talladega County Board of Education, who has assisted students in setting up hair snares in the Talladega National Forest in an effort to collect hair samples for DNA analysis.
Jacksonville State University biologist Dr. Robert Carter has crossed paths with at least one bear near Cheaha State Park.
“I was actually doing bird research,” he said. “It was early in the morning this past May.”
As he traveled the same path out of the forest, he came across fresh, real fresh, black bear droppings.
“It wasn’t there when I went into the woods,” he said.
It’s good that the black bear population is growing in Alabama, Carter said. It shows that the habitat is suitable for these large mammals.
“It’s really sort of neat,” he said, adding that there is no reason for people to be afraid. “They (black bears) want to be left alone and people want to be left alone, so it normally works out.”
He said the most dangerous part of his day when he found fresh black bear droppings in the forest was “my drive out there.”
“As long as they don’t have cubs, everything is OK,” he said.
Munford High School students are participating in black bear research through a partnership with Auburn University.
“They are setting up hair snares in areas where bears have been spotted,” said Kimberly Murray, the science research teacher at Munford schools.
Murray said snares are made up of barb wire that’s 18 inches off the ground and placed in a 25-meter perimeter.
“Hanging from the center of the snare,” she said, “is a sweet and savory smell that will bring the bears into the snare.”
Murray said the snares are positioned on hilltops where the smell of fish and other bait will cover a large area.
“The bear will then walk over the barb wire to get to the smell,” she said.
Students check the snares each week for any signs of hair on the barb wire enclosure. “We will run a white paper under the wire to find the hair.”
Any hair collected by the students is sent to Auburn University for DNA analysis.
“Once they get the DNA,” Ponder said, “they can tell a lot from it.”
The project exposes students to real-life scientific study.
“Students actually do field work based on protocol and practices used in real-world research,” Murray said. “It’s been a great opportunity for students.”
Even some middle schoolers are involved.
Dr. Todd Steury, an associate professor at the School of Forestry and Wildlife Science at Auburn University, said the involvement of the Munford High students has an added benefit.
“It’s a great collaborative project, a real success, and we get the added manpower,” he said.
Snares are also placed in the Shoal Creek Ranger District of the Talladega National Forest, north of Interstate 20. Munford students concentrate their efforts south of I-20 in the Talladega Ranger District of the Talladega National Forest.
“We only do it in the fall when bears are moving a lot, fattening up for the winter,” Steury said.
Ponder said Munford students have set up snares the past two falls, but have yet to snag a black bear hair for DNA analysis. But they’ll continue their efforts, he said.
Steury emphasized that the Talladega National Forest is a vast wooded area, so collected hair samples is difficult.
“We had about 15 hair snares in Talladega National Forest north of I-20, but that is only a small portion of the total area sampled,” he said.
In North Alabama, more than 50 hair snares were set up, and that doesn’t include those made by Munford High students or those placed in the Little River National Preserve, which did its own snaring in collaboration with the Auburn University program.
“In Alabama, as a whole, we had more than 300 hair snares,” Steury said.
SHOAL CREEK DISTRICT
“We have a couple knocking around here on a regular basis,” said Jonathan Stober, the U.S. Forest Service Shoal Creek Ranger District biologist, about bear sightings.
The Shoal Creek Ranger District covers the northern portion of the Talladega National Forest, the forest area north of Interstate 20 or U.S. 78.
Stober said there is a handful of black bears that roam that area.
“We have about a half-dozen in the Shoal Creek District,” he said.
Stober said he believes they are young males. “It’s only a matter of time before a female comes here.”
Researchers said female bears generally stay home, while male bears are more apt to roam, searching for a new home range.
Stober also welcomes the increased black bear population in Alabama.
“From a wildlife standpoint, it’s a good thing,” he said. “It is a huge learning curve to live around bears and to do that successfully.”
MORE BAMA BEARS
There have been black bear sightings from Jefferson County near the Birmingham Metro Area east to Atlanta along the I-20 corridor, including St. Clair, Talladega, Calhoun, Clay and Cleburne counties.
“Black bear sightings are increasing,” said Daniel Powell, with the Alabama Black Bear Alliance, which helps record sightings throughout Alabama.
A map provided by the Alabama Natural Heritage Program shows reports of black bear sightings across Alabama. Only a few counties have had no sightings.
“If a bear is doing what it is supposed to be doing, you don’t see them,” Powell said. “Bears and Krispy Crème Donuts don’t go well together and often it leads to bad news for the bear.”
Researchers tried unsuccessfully for three years, from 1999 through 2001, to trap a female black bear in Washington County, which is next to Mobile County in south Alabama.
“I feel like we could do it in two weeks now,” Powell said. “The bear population has exploded. They are everywhere. Bear numbers are increasing all over Alabama. No doubt about it.”
Steury said there are viable populations of black bears in Mobile County and in the Little River Canyon areas of Alabama. These two areas are the only places where females are reproducing.
“The one in Mobile has been there forever,” he said.
Little River Canyon has had a viable population for the past 10 years.
“They have a ton of black bears in North Georgia,” Steury said. Those bears are expanding into Alabama. “We are seeing litters of three to four cubs (in Alabama), which tells you these bears are healthy.”
Alabama has an estimated population of about 200 to 300 black bears.
“But the chance of a bear encounter is slim,” Steury said.
Auburn researchers do trap black bears and put radio collars on some of them. Generally the bears weigh 130-140 pounds, but cornfield-fed bears can top more than 300 pounds.
“Most of the time, they are much smaller because of what they eat,” Steury said.
Male bears generally leave their mothers at two-and-a-half years old and search for their own place. Bears seen in Alabama in May, June and July are generally young male black bears searching for a new home range. Biologists said black bears look for easy meals -- blueberries, muscadines and acorns -- and plenty of cover.
“They want places to hide,” Steury said. “They like lots of cover; they love thickets.”
Neilsen said visitors should be aware of their surroundings when backpacking, hiking or camping in the Talladega National Forest.
“I think the biggest thing is for people to make noises,” she said, “talk.”
Neilson said the U.S. Forest Service has no requirements for backpackers, hikers or campers to store their food in bear-proof containers, but officials recommend at a minimum that food be stored in a bag and suspended from a tree, out of reach of a hungry bear.
Stober said bears are going to seek out the easy meals, like many wild animals.
“Don’t feed these animals,” he said.
Stober said people should not leave any garbage or food scraps around their home, property or campsite.
“Food will attract bears,” he said. “Control your food sources, so you don’t attract bears.”
Stober said people living around the perimeter of the National Forest need to be especially observant, and garbage should be kept in bear-proof containers, if bears become a problem.
People living in areas where bears are prevalent may have to take their garbage out to the road the morning garbage is actually picked up, minimizing problems with black bears.
“You should not be afraid of them, but you should be cautious of bears,” Steury said. “Be smart, eliminate food sources.”
Hikers and campers need to make noise so they do not surprise a bear, and if, confronted by a black bear, “make yourself look big.”
Don’t panic and slowly back away, Stober said.
“Black bears are not aggressive animals, usually,” he said. “You just want to minimize contact between bears and humans, but this is nothing to get hysterical about.”