Black bears are more common in state

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 29, 2016

By David Rainer

Don’t be surprised if a sighting that occurred recently in Oxford becomes more commonplace. A young, male black bear strolled through several neighborhoods in the Oxford area and created somewhat of a stir.

Thomas Harms, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s Large Carnivore Coordinator, said the state’s black bear population is expanding and sightings will likely increase.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

That is not a cause for alarm, according to Harms, as long as you give the bear plenty of room.

“It’s not uncommon to see one this time of year,” Harms said. “There are a lot of young males moving around this time of year. Usually when you see one in a populated area, it’s a young male that has been pushed out by his mother and is looking for a new home range.”

Wildlife and law enforcement officials looked for the bear in the Oxford area but never saw it again. Harms said that is because a young male may travel a great distance before he finds suitable habitat to call home.

“He will keep pushing out until he comes to a place that meets his needs,” he said. “We had one that went from Georgia, across Alabama and into Mississippi. We had sightings of that bear all the way across. So there’s no telling where that bear that was seen in Oxford will end up.”

When the public spots a black bear near a residential area, Harms said to report the sighting to the district WFF office and stay out of its way.

“Just give the bear its space and let it move through,” he said. “I know people want to take pictures, but keep your distance and let it be a bear and let it move on. Usually in those situations, by the next day, you’re not going to see it again.”

Harms said the main concentration of black bears is in Mobile and Washington counties and the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

I was the outdoors editor at the Mobile newspaper for 14 years and never spotted a black bear. I found bear tracks, but never laid eyes on a live one.

“They’re pretty hard to see,” Harms said. “They make it their business not to be seen. Even as big as they are and leaving tracks, they do a really good job of not being found.”

Harms said other areas of Alabama have some bears, but there are only a few breeding populations. He said there are bears in the Little River area in northeast Alabama, but those are a different subspecies (Ursus americanus americanus) of bears migrating from north Georgia. A small group of bears lives in Conecuh National Forest and, like those bears in southwest Alabama, are the Florida subspecies. Mature female bears average about 200 pounds. Males average about 300 pounds.

Harms said WFF is working with Auburn University to study the black bears in Alabama and try to determine the population numbers.

“We’re still working on the data to try to determine the number,” he said. “We’re processing hair samples and we have a few bears collared. We’re probably talking around 450 bears statewide. It could be a little more or a little less.

“We don’t count transient males passing through. They’re not part of the population. Once they mature and find a breeding female, they become part of an actual breeding population.”

Harms said there are eight collared bears in south Alabama and two in north Alabama. The collars are designed to stay on the bears for 14-15 months and then drop off. Biologists then recover the collars to download a full year of data. He also said plans are to trap and collar several more bears this summer.

From the data on hand, Harms said it appears female bears in south Alabama have a home range of 7 to 8 square miles, although there is some overlap with the females. In north Alabama, the female home range is about 12 square miles.

“We’re talking about two completely different habitats,” he said. “Up north, it’s more of a mountainous range and the bears have to cover more ground to find food. In south Alabama, just about everything grows year-round and the bears don’t have to travel as far to forage. Plus, there is a denser population in south Alabama, so that may have something to do with it.

“As far as males, it looks like they have a home range of about 20 square miles. It’s just like a buck covers more area, trying to cover more than one female at one time. And the males do protect their home range, their breeding area. They prefer not to fight, but they will. Most of the time the smaller bear will just run off.”

Harms said Alabama is not alone in an expanding population of black bears. He said the trend extends to the entire Southeast.

In Alabama, black bear is a game species but there is no open season.

“There’s a pretty good fine for killing one,” Harms said. “So whatever you do, don’t shoot one. Because they haven’t been hunted in decades, the population is slowly expanding. Being a predatory species, their growth is a lot slower than a deer or anything like that. So it’s going to take them a lot longer to rebound.

“But we’re seeing sows with three cubs pretty often and sometimes even four. That means they’re eating better and reproducing better. If you’re seeing multiple young, that usually means that population is in good health.”

Harms asks anyone who spots a black bear to go online to and fill out a report, which will end up in Harms’ data. The public can also contact any of the WFF district offices and report the sighting via email or by telephone.

“If they have photos, we would like to see them,” he said. “If they give permission, we want to post them on Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries’ Facebook page.”

Because the bulk of the bear population is in southwest Alabama, Harms has held outreach and education meetings recently.

“We talk about bear reproduction, how to understand the bears and how to live with them,” he said. “What most people know about bears is what they see in stories or on TV or in the movies, and they can draw the wrong conclusions. We want to give them the latest information on black bears and what to expect when they live in areas with bear populations. Eventually, we’ll be hosting these meetings on a statewide basis.”