Advertisement

Sightings becoming more common throughout state

Jan. 12—Although they were on the brink of nonexistence here only a few short years ago, the possibility of a major population rebirth for black bears in Mississippi is a dream that could come true.

"Bears don't spread out like deer, but by the nature of their biology, a stable, growing population of bears is always going to be centered in certain pockets of the state," said Brad Young, a biologist with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

At some point, officials say there will be an opportunity and a need for control in the form of a hunting season. There's no way to project when that may be. Possbily decades away even. But its something officials are working toward.

They're working toward it because hunting balances a healthy, thriving population of wildlife with no other natural predators, and that's the sort of population Mississippi's black bear program is working to restore.

Since the state's black bear program was established, in 2002, the state's black bear head count has increased from fewer than 50 to a conservative estimate of 120. Though that number leaves the available habitat far from overrun, Young points to the fact the population had essentially increased not at all in the 40 to 50 years prior. That stable but stagnant feature was the result of bear biology, Young says.

"There were no resident female bears here and, without that, you're just not going to have a growing population," he said. "Female cubs stay in their mothers' home range (as they mature) but males get kicked out by their mother and by other, mature bears. In the process they can wander hundreds of miles in any direction looking for a place to set up shop."

By that method, there were always some bears present in Mississippi but, with no females residing here, the entirety of the population was destined to remain transient until females arrived, which began happening in the Delta roughly two decades ago.

"Arkansas has a lot of bears, Young said. "In the mountain region of Arkansas, they've hunted bears for many, many years. In the last 20 years, they've opened a season in the delta of the White River. That's a testament to their management of the resource. Louisiana's bears aren't as populous, but growth of their numbers is underway and headed in that direction numerically."

Having a few female bears whose mothers' ranges were close enough to the Mississippi River that they crossed over and made their home here was the key first step to getting a population rebirth started.

"In 2005, we were able to document the first litter of bear cubs born in Mississippi in probably 40 or 50 years," Young said. "As females from those litters located here and had litters of their own, the population has been growing."

Bears living in Mississippi get 90 percent of their food from plant material, Young said, and the rest of what they eat comes from bugs and from carrion, meat from critters that were already dead before the bear arrived.

"They're kind of lazy finding food," Young said. "They're not going to chase down food when they have all they want to eat laying right in front of them."

Mississippi is home to two subspecies of black bears. The American black bear is found in the northern third of the state and the Louisiana black bear occurs in the southern two-thirds. The Louisiana black bear, recently removed from the Federally Threatened Species list, as well as the American black bear, are both classified as Endangered under Mississippi law. The two subspecies vary only in skull morphology and genetic makeup. They are indistinguishable to the naked eye.

If a bear is seen around your home, please see the information below on preventing problems before they happen. Listed below are several things around urban and rural homes that can attract bears:

Pet food

Any time bears are in the area, pet foods normally left outside should be brought inside a secure structure. Pet foods outside are a strong attractant to wandering bears looking for a meal. In addition, if your pet stays outside the chances of a dangerous altercation between the bear and your animal increase dramatically. A pet, especially dogs, may stand its ground to defend its food and the bear may or may not back down. If there is no food for the pet to defend, there is also no reason for the bear to instigate a useless fight.

Barbecue grills

Most of us have walked out our door and smelled the aroma of the neighbor down the street grilling. Bears have a sense of smell much greater than ours and if we can smell it, you can bet a bear much further away can as well. Cleaning your grill or smoker thoroughly after use, being sure to remove all grease and fat, and securing it inside a structure a bear cannot get into will help ensure your grill will remain intact for the next weekend cookout.

Bird feeders

Bears are included in the term "Wildlife," bird feeders and other wildlife feeders are not selective to the animals they supply with food. Bears are very strong animals and even bird feeders suspended far off the ground may not be out of reach of climbing or pulling the entire support down. As with pet foods and garbage, in an area with rare occurrence of bears, removing the feeder until the bear has moved on may resolve the issue. However, if in areas bears are commonly found the only solution may be to remove the feeder indefinitely.

Vehicles

Anytime bears are in the area, if possible you should never leave food unattended inside your vehicle. If you choose to do so, make sure all of your windows are rolled completely up, preventing as much scent as possible, and in all cases keep all of your vehicle doors locked. Bears are very intelligent animals and have been documented opening unlocked car doors to get to food items left inside.

Garbage

Unsecured garbage is THE most common attractant to bears in an area. Bags full of household garbage is a bag full of an easy meal to a bear. Securing your garbage can either be the easiest or the most difficult task when dealing with a nuisance bear. If the bear is passing through an area they are not normally found, securing your garbage inside until the bear has moved on may solve the entire issue. However, if you live in an area where bears are more common, additional measures such as bear proof garbage cans or keeping your cans/dumpsters secured with an electric fence may be required.

Many of the extended stay hunting camps I have been to have a community dumpster. This dumpster is generally placed in a central location for everyone to use and is picked up by a waste disposal company.

Smaller dumpsters can be modified with a reinforced locking lid that keeps the bear out or may be replaced with a certified bear proof dumpster. These have both been used across the U.S. with great success.

Large, open top dumpsters can be more difficult. The only effective means of bear proofing these larger dumpsters is to place it behind an electric fence. These fences have been used around beehives and gardens with great success.

Deer feeders

Problems associated with nuisance bear and wildlife feeders is one of the most common complaints we get. Unfortunately, there is only one surefire solution to nuisance bears destroying wildlife feeders and that is to remove them indefinitely. Depending where the feeder is located, steps can be taken to minimize damage, but few if any will completely solve the problem. If bear sightings in your area are very rare and the bear is passing through, leaving the feeder off until the bear has moved on MAY resolve the issue. In areas where bear sightings are more frequent, as soon as the feeder is refilled the bear (or another bear) will return.

Securing unoccupied cabins

Whenever your hunting camp or cabin will be left unattended for an extended period of time, it is always recommended that you do not leave any garbage (inside or out), make sure all wildlife feeds, bird seed, or seed for planting is securely locked up allowing as little smell as possible. Always be sure to clean up any outdoor cooking areas such as fire pits, smokers, or barbecue grills and secure them inside if possible. Take special care to thoroughly clean any areas where harvested animals have been processed and take offal remains far away from the cabin site.

If extra security is needed for a very long duration of absence, windows/doors may be boarded with thick plywood or "unwelcome" mats may be constructed and placed in front of windows, doors and at the top or bottom of staircases.

Kevin is the weekend edition editor for the Daily Journal. Contact him at kevin.tate@journalinc.com.