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A black bear at the Montgomery Zoo in 2002. Black bears are regularly appearing in the Talladega National Forest, leading biologists to speculate the animals have moved into North Alabama for the first time in at least a century.
AP photo by Mickey Welsh
A black bear at the Montgomery Zoo in 2002. Black bears are regularly appearing in the Talladega National Forest, leading biologists to speculate the animals have moved into North Alabama for the first time in at least a century.

Black bear sightings rise in northern part of state

By Katherine Bouma
The Associated Press

BIRMINGHAM - Black bears are regularly appearing in the Talladega National Forest, leading biologists to speculate that the rare animals have moved into North Alabama for the first time in at least a century.

It's certain that black bears have been in Cleburne and Cherokee counties during the past four years. They have been captured on film, hair samples have been retrieved and tracks photographed.

Staying or just visiting?

It's unclear if they are becoming what biologists consider permanent residents - mating pairs that are remaining in the forest and raising cubs. But experts say that, if they haven't set up housekeeping, it probably won't be long before they do.

"One of the things that interests me about Alabama is that it's a large state with a lot of forest and relatively few people," said Joe Clark, a bear expert for the U.S. Geological Survey in Knoxville. "I think once bears find it, they're probably going to do well there."

Seventy percent of the state, almost 23 million acres, is forest or pine tree farms.

Bears are not uncommon in neighboring states or elsewhere in the Appalachian Mountains. But in Alabama, the population has been limited for many years to a small but stable population of 50 to 100 bears in Mobile and Washington counties.

Until about five years ago, it was rare for anyone to claim to have seen a bear in north Alabama's Talladega National Forest, said Jeff Gardner, biologist for the forest.

"Over the past three or four years, each year the number of bear sightings have gone up dramatically," he said.

Now, he said, he gets several calls a week in the summer.

For several years, wildlife biologists have seen bear scat, tracks and scrapings on trees. Landowners have caught bears on motion-sensitive cameras posted near wildlife feeding stations. But some question remains about their permanent status because male black bears are known wanderers.

One famous creature traveled from Florida to Louisiana, lumbering through urban areas and frightening residents along hundreds of miles before it was nabbed and returned to the spot its wildlife collar indicated it belonged.

Females don't usually move from their homes, but even they have given false hope to bear enthusiasts. A year ago, black bears were found near the Cahaba River at the Bibb-Shelby county line. Barbed wire snares were posted near bait to capture some of their hair.

Genetic tests revealed there were two bears, a male and a female.

Then, abruptly, there were no more sightings and no signs at bait stations or motion-triggered cameras, said Keith Guyse, a biologist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The Talladega bear sightings have been more numerous, over more years, and have twice included a female with cubs.

Females are one of the keys to establishing a population. Sows, particularly those with cubs, will rarely roam. If females settle in an area where males regularly visit, biologists consider that bears have moved in.

This summer, one of the sows that had been seen with cubs the previous winter was shot and killed. The bear had been tagged in Georgia, indicating she was a "nuisance bear" - one that threatens or disturbs humans.

A state wildlife official said he couldn't say much more about the shooting because a case is pending. It is illegal to shoot bears in Alabama.

Across the East, black bear numbers are increasing. Several subspecies still are considered imperiled, such as the Florida black bear that lives in the Florida Panhandle and south Alabama.

Black bears historically ranged over most of the forested regions of North America but now are restricted to relatively undisturbed forested regions. They still can be found throughout most of Canada and at least 40 of the states.

Populations in the Southeast are considered the most at-risk, surviving primarily in the Appalachian Mountains and in some coastal areas.

Greg Scull, a student at Jacksonville State University, is beginning to capture bear hair samples in the Talladega to conduct genetic tests as a graduate project.

"If we only get male hair samples, then maybe these are just young bears that have been pushed out of northwest Georgia and are hanging out here temporarily," Scull said.

Genetic tests ultimately could show where the bears are coming from, but Georgia is the best guess since they are losing good forest there, Clark said.

Bears need so much space in part because they eat food that doesn't grow very densely - berries, acorns, nuts and a few small animals and roots, Clark said.

But they aren't picky and they're adept at moving to get what they need, he said.

"If you think about it, they exist all the way from the tip of Florida all the way up to Alaska," Clark said. "They're intelligent animals."

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Information from: The Birmingham News

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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