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September 29, 2011   Email to Friend 

Bears in Bama
Jillian Clair

Cleburne County farmer Jimmy Jimmerson is among a growing number of Alabamians who have encountered a black bear.
Jimmy Jimmerson is glad his friend saw it, or everyone would think the story about the bear was just another one of his tall tales.

Jimmerson, a member of the Alabama Farmers Federation's State Wildlife Committee and an outdoor enthusiast who lives in Cleburne County near the Talladega National Forest, likes to tell stories about wildlife he's seen, but the time he saw the black bear tops them all.

The best part: it's true.

"We were riding along on the four wheeler, not really looking for anything, and all of a sudden, this bear runs across our path right out in the road," Jimmerson said. "He stopped and looked for just a second, but then he kept going. I'm sitting there just hoping my buddy saw it too, or people might not believe me."

Although black bears are common in the Appalachian Mountains of north Georgia, they are not typically associated with the rolling foothills in north Alabama. A sighting like Jimmerson's is rare.

But this year, sightings in Holly Pond, Double Springs, Boaz, Cullman, Birmingham, Roebuck, Lake Harding, Auburn, Atmore, Mobile and Macon counties confirm Jimmerson's three-year-old story - black bears are becoming more common in Alabama.

"As I began to tell people about what happened, I realized other people had seen them, too," Jimmerson said.

Paul Williams, a Cleburne County forester, said he has a camera set up on his property to capture photographs of deer, but came home from vacation to find a picture of a black bear instead.

"My kids wanted to see a bear, so we went to the Smokies and drove through Cades Cove," Williams said. "When we came home and checked the camera, it turned out we had a bear bigger in our backyard than the one we saw at Cades Cove."

Southeast Alabama has long been known for occasional sightings of the Florida subspecies of the American black bear, but the black bears seen recently in north Alabama are of the Eastern subspecies and were previously thought to cross into Alabama only on rare occasions.

It is estimated that a total of only 50 black bears live in the state, but this number may be growing, said wildlife biologist Keith Gauldin of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

"It seems to be an increasing amount of sightings, so we could have an increase in population--it's hard to tell," Gauldin said.

The cause of the more frequent sightings is unknown at this time, but Gauldin has a few theories.

"A lot of times, bears will spread out because juveniles are being dispersed out of adult bear territories," Gauldin said. "Basically, the mother is kicking them out of the house, and they're establishing their own territories. They're usually the ones who get in a lot of trouble."

Another reason for bears to enter Alabama may be males searching for receptive females, Gauldin said.

Food shortages because of drought could also be a factor in the bears' changing migration patterns.

"With it being so dry this year, they are probably having to travel a lot farther to find suitable food sources," Gauldin said.

Regardless of the cause of the increase in the Alabama black bear population, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is striving to inform the public about the importance of protecting them.

People should not hunt or feed bears.

A bear's acute sense of smell may draw it to unnatural sources of food, such as household garbage and outdoor pet food, Gauldin said.

The feeding of birds and other wildlife increases the possibility of attracting bears as well.

A bear that associates a piece of property with food will likely lose its natural fear of humans, which is the bear's most important survival mechanism, Gauldin said.

While classified as a carnivore, black bears are actually poor predators and are more omnivorous, mainly concentrating on vegetative matter for the bulk of their diet.

Common food sources include fruits, berries and acorns, but bears will sometimes take advantage of agricultural crops such as corn, wheat and sugarcane. Occasionally, they will also damage bee hives in their quest for honey.

Although not normally aggressive, black bears are wild animals, and their behavior is unpredictable, Gauldin said. The purposeful act of feeding them is discouraged by all wildlife professionals and can lead to dangerous consequences.

"Folks watch the nature channel and stuff like that, and they see articles about grizzly bears, but our bears are not nearly as aggressive," Gauldin said. "They are wild animals, though, and people should never pursue them, corner them or feed them."

However, black bears are shy in nature and will flee at the sight of humans in most situations, so landowners and outdoorsmen should not be alarmed if they see a bear, Gauldin said.

"If you do see a bear, you should consider yourself lucky because not many people do," Gauldin said. "I've never even seen one in the wild."

If you see a black bear anywhere in the state, visit the Alabama Black Bear Alliance website, www.alabamablackbearalliance.org, to complete an online report form or contact ADCNR Wildlife Biologist Keith Gauldin at the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries District V office at (251) 626-5474.

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