- Associated Press - Sunday, July 20, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Daniel Powell’s email inbox has been lighting up recently as people contact him about black bear sightings.

Powell is the director of the Alabama Black Bear Alliance, and he has been busy the past couple of years. In Alabama, and throughout the nation, black bear sightings have been on the rise, as the population increases and the bruins move into areas where they haven’t been for generations.

“Bears travel this time of year,” Powell said. “Mature males are out looking for receptive females. And mamma bears have driven off juvenile males, and the young males are looking for their own territory.

“It’s not uncommon for a male bear to roam several hundred miles, so they can go from state to state very easily.”

Alabama has native bear populations in the southwestern and northeastern corners of the state. During the past two to three years, sightings have come in from other areas, said Keith Gauldin, assistant wildlife chief for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.

“It is quite evident that black bears are increasing in numbers and expanding the historic ranges,” he said. “We have probably seen at least a 30 percent increase in bear sightings. We now routinely have sightings come in from throughout the state, and I’m not surprised at all.

“Black bears are very adaptable, and they will eat just about anything. They aren’t really meat eaters like some people will assume. They are mostly herbivores. A good number of sightings we get is when bears raid bird feeders.”

The state game department has been working with Auburn University on a black bear research project that has been going on for three years. The project involves a bait station surrounded by two rows of barbed wire. When the bears come to investigate the bait and hanging lure, the barbed wire snags tufts of the animals’ fur. That hair is used to test for DNA, which gives biologists information about the diversity of the state’s bear population.

Shifts in public opinion about black bears are key to their population boom, said Lynn Rogers, a nationally recognized black bear expert with the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota.

Today, there are an estimated 950,000 black bears in the United States compared with about 450,000 in the early 20th century, Rogers said.

“Education is the key. People no longer look on bears as vermin to be exterminated,” he said. “In most states, black bears are game animals, and several states have hunting seasons for bears. Once anything has a value placed on it, it’s easier to protect.

“People are now more aware of the role that black bears play in the environment. We have taught people what it takes to live with bears, so there is a more accepting attitude now from say 30 or 40 years ago.”

Black bear awareness was a hot topic recently in Illinois after a single black bear made a 300-mile jaunt through northern Illinois from late May to the end of June. Illinois has no native black bears, so the animal likely was a visitor from Wisconsin, said Chris Young, spokesman for the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

“The bear’s journey generated a lot of attention and interest,” he said. “We used it as a teachable moment to educate the public about black bears. As their population increases we will see more bears travel through, and we will have naive population in the future if the trend of bears expanding their range continues.”

Bears are thriving even in areas that many would not consider to be bear territory. Massachusetts had an estimated 100 bears in the 1970s, and the state now has about 4,000 bears, said Laura Conlee, fur-bearer biologist and black bear project leader for the state’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. The state has a 35-day bear hunting season.

“We are the third most densely populated state in the country,” she said. “But Massachusetts is bear country. We are heavily forested once you get out of the Boston area with its adjacent suburbs, and that’s prime bear habitat.

“The bear population is steadily moving eastward. Each year we have reports of male bears wandering into the Boston suburbs.”

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Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, https://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

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