On Wednesday, June 29, a black bear meandered down the streets in Opelika near the downtown area. The young male black bear — according to Mark Smith, extension specialist and associate professor of Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences — was tranquilized and captured with the help of forestry and wildlife sciences faculty.
The bear was later released to the wild.
“[The whole incident] was likely a juvenile black bear dispersing from its native range,” Smith explains. “When bears become two years of age, they disperse looking for a new home and a mate. This bear was just moving through.”
The bear was possibly walking miles from central Georgia to Opelika or from another small population in northeastern Alabama.
“We don’t know for sure yet," Smith said. "We obtained some D.N.A. samples and hopefully will figure out the bear’s origins soon."
Smith states that this incident is just normal dispersal that takes place every year for all young bears.
“It’s nothing new … new, but not that new,” he said.
According to Smith, bears are not common in southeastern Alabama.
“No, we would have gotten reported calls every day of bear sightings. We do have bears in southwest Alabama, that’s the longest population we have had for some time,” Smith said. “There is a small population in northeast Alabama. Bears we see here are just moving through.”
But even with the lack of bears in this area, Smith said there is always a possibility for what happened in Opelika.
“In Wildlife management the only thing true is to never say ‘never,' and never say ‘always.’ There will be a small possibility that we will see another bear anytime soon.”
Although bears are depicted as vicious predators, bears are actually omnivores that eat both meat and vegetation. A predator within the state of Alabama that might cause an actual threat to the public is the coyote population.
There are very few mountain lions, if any, within the state of Alabama. Going down the size scale, Alabama does have smaller predators such as the common fox. Smith makes it very clear that animals are more afraid of humans than humans are afraid of them.
In the rare chance of encountering a bear in Alabama, slowly back away and make yourself known.
“Most of the time bears are trying to avoid you … avoid human contact," Smith said. "They will try to run from you. Be careful when encountering a mother and her cubs, and slowly back away and leave the area."
As for the increase in population of black bears rumored to be taking place within Alabama, Smith says it could be a possibility,
“Georgia’s bear population has been growing," Smith said. "They’ve reached the point enough that they can have a hunting season. ... This is just natural, normal dispersal that happens everywhere. Bear populations are increasing in the Southeast United States. In north Alabama there are 15 to 20 individual bears up there, and that population may be growing.”
Smith further explains that the growth of the bear population is moving at a slow pace, not to the point that bears will overrun the South.
“The population of large mammals grow very slowly … but they are growing," he said.
There is a takeaway however, according to Smith.
“Folks need to not overreact and understand that we may see some bears coming through in the future," Smith said. "In most cases, they will be passing through. When there are news reports of it, don’t run out to go see it. When we get bear cases, [forestry and wildlife] know where the bear is and is tracking it. We’ll let nature take its course until the bear begins to cause problems.”