Read Time 7 Minutes
Let me introduce you to four male black bear cubs who reside near the Little River Canyon National Preserve. Say hello to Pea Eye, Newt, Gus and Blue Duck.
Born in January 2020, these four cubbies are just one of many reasons black bear scientists and educators are excited about the recent return of these cuddly creatures to the northeast corner of the state of Alabama.
Here is their story.
Animals Returning to Alabama
When the state of Alabama’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources commits to bringing back some of the state’s most iconic animals, they have a wildly successful track record dating back almost a century.
For example, in the 1930s, deer had vanished from 57 of the 67 counties in Alabama. They were nearly gone from the state because of overhunting and habitat destruction. Today, thanks to conservation efforts, deer are plentiful.
The same is true with wild turkeys. In the 1940s, wild turkey, the bird Ben Franklin wanted to make our national symbol, had dwindled to just a few more than 11,000 birds in Alabama. By the 2000s, their population topped a healthy 500,000.
In addition to those animals, in the 1980s, the Department of Conservation brought bald eagles back to Alabama. Practically gone four decades ago, today, you can spot bald eagles across the state.
Now, the Department of Conservation is turning its attention to black bears. This is good news for our cubbies.
History of Black Bears
A little black bear history.
Black bears are native to Alabama. When the state joined the Union in 1819, they could be found in every corner of the Yellowhammer state.
“Their demise occurred more than a century ago due to over harvesting and habitat manipulation,” Hannah Leeper, a bear researcher at Auburn University told us.
As a result, the state hosts the smallest and most fragmented black bear populations in North America.
Presently, there are only two areas where black bears take up permanent residence in the state. Up until about a decade ago, the only place black bears reproduced was in the Mobile River basin. The Department of Conservation believes there are about 150-250 bears in Mobile/Washington counties.
That may sound like a lot, but it isn’t, and unfortunately these bears are cut off and isolated from neighboring bears in the Florida panhandle. This threatens their long-term survival.
“There was a genetic hair snare survey a couple years ago that confirmed that the Mobile population is highly genetically isolated, and if we don’t do something to help facilitate gene flow, that population could be headed toward a genetic bottleneck,” added Leeper.
In 2006, the plight of the Mobile black bears was amplified by Escambia County students, who campaigned to have the bears designated our state mammal. On April 12th of that year, Governor Bob Riley signed a law making the black bear our official state mammal.
That act elevated the bear’s significance.
New Hope for Black Bears in Northeast Alabama
In the 2010s a second population of bears was discovered in DeKalb and Cherokee counties in Northeast Alabama. This is a game-changer. These bears are recolonizing from the north Georgia bear population. Early research studies of these bears are encouraging. The mothers are producing larger-than-usual litters and the cubs are healthy, like our four cubs.
In 2014, the state of Alabama secured federal funding that focuses on species at risk. ‘State Wildlife’ grants will fund black bear research in partnership with Auburn University until 2024 and hopefully beyond.
“We are just learning how black bears behave in Alabama,” stated Traci Woods, Habitat and Species Conservation Coordinator with the Department of Conservation. “Why is their population growing or not growing? What is contributing to their survival or mortality? We are just now getting good population estimates and information on how they are moving.”
Alabama’s black bears go by two nicknames. Berry bears or honey bears.
And yes, they are kin to the most famous bear of them all—Winnie the Pooh.
When Beth Sewell, an educator at the JSU Field School asks students to describe the size of our bears, they have an image of big 600 to 1000 pound menacing grizzly or brown bear from out West. She has to assure them our black bears are much smaller, with a kinder temperament.
For example, female black bears in Alabama weigh 125-135 pounds. Males are about twice that, the size of an Auburn University linebacker.
They are omnivores. Their diet? Pretty much anything a racoon would eat—insects, roots, berries, acorns and other nuts, mushrooms, grasses and other plant materials, as well as small mammals such as mice and ground squirrels, fish, crayfish, and of course rubbish left by humans in trash cans and campsites. Vegetation normally makes up over 80 percent of their diet.
“If a grocery store was open they would gorge themselves on everything,” said Sewell. “They don’t have the work ethic of a grizzly or polar bear—and they don’t have to. The berries are too tasty.”
Another interesting fact about Alabama’s bears is their sense of smell. Black bears can smell things over a mile away.
“That can get them in trouble if they smell a bar-b-que, but always remember our black bears in Alabama are very scared of humans,” added Sewell.
If you notice, our four cubbies have large bulky radio collars. Bear researchers are trained on how to capture the bears, sedate them and fit the bears with monitoring equipment and tags to record how they move and live in the forests. Don’t let the photo deceive you. NEVER approach a black bear. They are wild animals, no matter how harmless they may look.
According to the researchers we talked to, they do a workup on the bears to determine their health, sort of like an annual check up we humans have. They measure from tail to snout, look at the health of its teeth, all the while applying bags of ice to the bear to control its temp so it doesn’t overheat during the workup.
One of the researchers gets the fun job of regularly ‘taking’ the temperature the old fashioned way—and that is not in their ear, under their tongue or on their forehead. Yep, in the bottom.
Other than the collar, they put in a microchip in case the bear loses its collar or ear tags. Not an easy thing to do, because the bear’s skin is very thick.
Bear Sightings in Birmingham?
Since the Department of Conservation began their research six years ago, here are some of their findings:
- North Alabama bears now have a viable population.
- Bears generally avoid humans.
- Virtually all the dens located in south Alabama were ‘nests,’ very similar to the nests that birds build.
- North Alabama bears mostly utilize wind rows and rock outcrops.
- North Alabama population is estimated at 35-50.
- North Alabama population is growing. These bears have a good genetic influence, have quality denning habitat and larger tracts of unfragmented land with suitable habitat.
- The northern population could triple within the next 5 years.
The state expects Birmingham will see more sightings of male bears roaming in the summer months, not necessarily establishing a population. Be mindful. Male bears go on walkabouts that may extend a hundred miles from dens in North Alabama.
The people of Birmingham are going to have to adapt to that and live with it 20 years down the road.
Are we going to see moms and cubs? Very unlikely. Hannah Leeper’s research indicates the bears in the Northeast are moving very slowly southward. She does not expect the bears to take up permanent residence anywhere near Birmingham because of the poor habitat—not enough unbroken forests and people around.
Why Should You Care About Black Bears
Leeper sums up why we should welcome black bears back to Alabama.
“What brings back an ecosystem? An apex mammal. Black bears are an umbrella species that has this overarching impact. Whatever we can do to help a bear helps other species too. They are seed spreaders. They eat a lot of berries and nuts—and then they poop it out. It helps disperse those species of plants in a forest. They are scavengers that clean up dead decaying trees, animals and other fungi. They are no threat to humans.”
JSU’s Sewell concluded:
‘Bears are the state mammal for a reason. They were here first. The fact that they are naturally returning is almost a miracle. Welcome the bears—they should be revered as a sacred species. They are beautiful.”
There are multiple ways you can learn more about black bears in Alabama.
- Visit the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources website about Black Bears, which also describes what to do if you encounter one.
- Watch Beth Sewell’s recent video on black bears.
Also contact Beth Sewell about doing a “Alabama Black Bears with Beth” presentation at a school or civic club at email@example.com
Now tell us, Birmingham, have you ever seen a black bear in the state? Tag us on social @bhamnow and let us know.