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Expect Bear Encounters In More Alabama Counties
By Mike Bolton
Posted Tuesday June 27 2017, 5:38 PM
This black bear caused quite a commotion last June as it wandered into downtown Opelika and walked through local neighborhoods. It was tranquilized and relocated.
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That wonderful invention known as the trail camera often reveals some creatures that the camera owners did not expect to find on their properties. AON readers have sent in trail-camera photos of alligators, flying squirrels, rattlesnakes and even a naked man hiking through the woods wearing only sandals and a backpack.

We did not use that photo in our Spy-Cam section in case you were wondering.

These days, more and more trail-camera owners are discovering black bears when they download their photos. That’s understandable, an Auburn University researcher says, because there are more black bears than ever before in Alabama, and some are obviously very willing to travel.

The wooded habitat where trail cameras are typically located is often the very habitat that black bears seek. Toss in that seemingly endless supply of corn on the ground that often accompanies trail cameras, and you create a bear heaven.

“There are definitely more bears in Alabama, and that’s a good thing,” says Todd Steury, an associate professor of wildlife ecology at Auburn University, who has been studying Alabama bears for six years. “There has long been a population of black bears in southwest Alabama (Mobile, Washington and Clarke counties). That population is not very big, and there is no evidence that the population is growing.

“But there is now a breeding population of black bears near the Little River Preserve area in northeast Alabama, and it is definitely growing.”

That permanent bear population can now be found in DeKalb, Cherokee and Etowah counties. It may possibly be spinning off some of the wandering bears that seem to be more common in east and central Alabama these days. In recent months, black bears have been spotted in Opelika, Pelham, Heflin, Lanett, Alexander City and Tuskegee.

The day after Steury did this interview with AON, police confirmed the presence of a wandering black bear in the heavily populated Birmingham suburb of Center Point. A woman was stunned to find the bear in her backyard. Police arrived and saw it, too.

Steury says that even six years into the Auburn study it still isn’t clear exactly where the bears in Alabama are coming from. He speculates that some of the wandering bears that have made their way to Alabama through the years came from Tennessee and north Georgia. He suspects the bears seen roaming through areas like Heflin and Oxford in recent years came from north Georgia. He suspects most are migrating from northeast or central Georgia near Macon, however.

He said it is not uncommon for bears to wander, and there is good reason for it.

“When the males get to be about 2 1/2 years old, their mothers kick them out of the house, and they go off in search of a new place to live,” Steury said. “In some cases, wandering bears are older males that get displaced when new bears move into their areas.”

While researchers go off in search of bears, unsuspecting trail-camera owners and residents in populated areas are usually shocked when black bears find them. When a 100-lb. black bear meandered through downtown Opelika and Opelika neighborhoods last June, it did so in front of hundreds of witnesses and police. It caused quite a commotion.

More often than not, however, black bears are going to stay secluded, and many times that is when trail-camera owners get to enjoy the show.

 Robert Willis, of Turnerville, in Mobile County, frequently captures photos of black bears on his trail cameras. He says the sight of black bears is nothing new to him, but it can be unnerving to new citizens in his county.

“We’ve had bears forever,” he said. “My Papaw used to call them honey bears. But these I see now are somewhat larger than the ones I saw as a kid. The old timers agree that they are bigger, too. And they come out in broad daylight, and they can be everywhere, like in people’s yards. People are funny. They put feed out for them and then get mad when they come up on their porch.”

Steury said claims that bears in southwest Alabama are bigger are likely accurate. He said he has seen that for himself. He believes that can be traced back to the large amount of corn that hunters put in the woods to attract deer.

John Richburg, of Grove Hill in Clarke County, says black bears first began appearing in his part of the county 10 years ago. He said he has only seen bear tracks in the past, but recently his trail camera caught a series of shots of a black bear.

“The land we lease is encircled by what used to be the Scotch WMA,” he said. “I know the state has done some bear research there.”

Richburg said the presence of a bear on a trail camera “has a few of the hunting club’s members concerned.”

Black bear researchers and volunteers who help monitor black bears for the state will quickly tell you that black bears are timid and won’t hurt you. That, of course, isn’t always evident to a deer hunter who encounters a bear while walking away from his tree stand at dark or a homeowner who comes face-to-face with one on his back porch eating garbage.

Steury agrees that black bears are pretty much harmless, but he does so with an asterisk.

“It’s the old saying that they are more scared of you than you are of them,” he said. “Should you ever encounter a black bear, scream and do everything possible to look bigger, and 99 percent of them will run away.

“But black bears can be dangerous. I think every attack I’ve ever heard of by a black bear on a human was because the bears was being fed by humans or because the human did something stupid.”

Black bears are a protected species in Alabama and can not be hunted or harmed in any way, state wildlife officials say.
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