Exploring and Protecting the lives of Black Bears

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Auburn researchers have settled deep in the woods to pursue a multi-year project focused on what may be Alabama’s most elusive and enigmatic segment of fauna—the black bear. The state is home to one of the smallest and most fragmented black bear populations in North America.

In March, the project, led by Dr. Todd Steury, associate professor of wildlife ecology in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences at Auburn University, received a $1.1 million grant from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, or ACDNR. The grant allows the team to extend its previous research into an extensive five-year examination of the bears’ denning behavior and how it impacts reproduction and cub survival.

Steury said the grant will aid the ongoing research in three critical ways.

“We want to understand, first, what proportion of cubs make it to adulthood, and what the cause of death is for the ones that don’t. Secondly, we want to find out where the females den for giving birth, and the quality of those dens. Finally, we want to see where the cubs that make it to adulthood disperse to and whether they are able to become part of the breeding population,” Steury said.

“These questions are a priority, because anecdotal evidence from our own field research suggests that many of the cubs that are born are not surviving to adulthood,” Steury said. “Thus, we need to determine if that’s actually true and if so, why.”
How many bears, and where?

The denning study builds on earlier research, also primarily funded by ADCNR, which focused on the locations and numbers of adult bears, as well as their movements, habitat use and genetic makeup.

In November 2018, Steury’s team published its findings in the journal PLOS One. That portion of the study showed a growing bear population in northeast Alabama and a distinct genetic group in the Mobile area. The article, “Genetic health and population monitoring of two small black bear populations in Alabama, with a regional perspective of genetic diversity and exchange,” was co-authored by Steury and graduate students Christopher Seals and John Draper.

An earlier phase of the study had pinpointed the locations of these two groups: an estimated 30 bears were centered in Little River Canyon and Fort Payne, and an estimated 85 bears—possibly as many as 165—resided in Mobile and Washington Counties, north of Mobile.

The research published in the fall showed the north Alabama bear population, which originally migrated from north Georgia, had more than doubled in the previous four years; team members observed that those mother bears often have three or four cubs in a litter, far higher than the typical litter of one or two. Researchers also noted that the bears north of Mobile, which have a high level of inbreeding, comprise their own distinct group, with no genetic connection to other bear populations. Steury said the south Alabama bears have the lowest genetic diversity of any comparison population in the Southeast.

For that phase, researchers collected more than 1,000 bear DNA samples from hair left on more than 300 snares placed in habitats and bear scat retrieved using Auburn’s EcoDogs program. Groups throughout the state, including Munford High School students, the National Park Service and the Birmingham Zoo, helped collect data.

The team tracked bears using game cameras and equipped 20 bears in the two populations with radio collars. The collars allowed researchers to receive location information via the internet—every hour for a year—with locations superimposed over Google Earth map images so individual bears could be mapped.

That remarkable accumulation of data collected in the fall opened up the opportunity to get a closer view into the bears’ lives as they progressed.

Dropping in on the den
Chuck Sykes, director of the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division at the ADCNR, said the denning portion of the study will yield significant information.

“Given the relatively small size of the population and its isolation from other bear populations, what happens to young bears when they disperse from the mother is of particular concern,” Sykes said of the Alabama bears.

He said observation suggests that the black bears in the southern part of the state may lack appropriate denning habitats, and many young bears become lost before they recruit into the population, which may cause stagnant population growth.

Steury said examining the dwellings of bears in south Alabama, where the land precludes typical den-building, is key.

“Bears usually den in caves, under rock outcroppings, and in hollowed-out trees. The Mobile area doesn’t really have caves or rock outcroppings, and the old, hollow cypress trees have long since been chopped down,” he said. “Consequently, most of our Mobile bears seem to just build nests on the ground – hollowed out depressions, lined with vegetation. We’re concerned that these nests don’t offer good protection from predators and the elements for cubs, and hence may result in poor cub survival.”
Steury’s team has visited a number of Alabama bear dens, taking measurements of den characteristics in addition to fitting cubs with expandable radio-telemetry collars.

When the cubs are 2-years-old — the age in which they typically disperse from their mothers — the team will equip the young bears with GPS-enabled radio-telemetry collars to track their dispersal patterns and determine whether they recruit into the population.

The research on bear denning, reproduction and cub survival, dispersal and recruitment will continue through 2023.

This work is vital to ensure the protection of the state’s bears, said Janaki Alavalapati, dean of the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.

“Dr. Steury’s research on the declining population of black bears in Alabama will yield information that is critical to preserving the species in the state,” said Alavalapati. “This study will lead to efforts to protect the bears and ensure that they thrive.”

Staying bear aware

In some parts of the United States, bears are a game species. But in Alabama, where the bear populations are dangerously low, there is no bear season. It is illegal to kill a bear in the state.

Steury said it’s important to discourage bears from roaming into populated areas by taking measures such as not feeding them and not leaving trash or pet food outside. If you see a bear, he said, it’s important to contact a local conservation officer of the ADCNR.

A sudden bear encounter requires quick thinking and some basic knowledge.

If you encounter a black bear, you should stay calm, make yourself big and loud, and back away slowly, Steury said. “A black bear will almost always run away, but if you are attacked, you should fight back.”

* Fewer than 200 Black Bears remain in Alabama

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