The black bear population in an area of Middle Georgia is much lower than previously thought, a three-year study has concluded.
The study, done by the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, puts the population at 140. It had previously been estimated at about 300.
The previous estimate was too high, but the lower figure is also due to vehicle accidents and hunting, said Michael Chamberlain, a lead researcher.
The new study is the most thorough and accurate one the state has done on the population, he said. It included an area south of Interstate 16 and down Ga. 96, then south to the Ocmulgee and Oaky Woods wildlife management areas.
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The new study also looked at a smaller area, but that has been expanded and a few more bears may get added to the population.
The state began allowing an annual one-day hunt in 2011, and that resulted in 34 bears being killed, which raised objections from wildlife advocates. The next year 14 were killed. Then in 2013 the state moved the date back to when bears were starting to den, and only one bear was killed. In a hunt held Dec. 13 five were killed, making a total of 54 lost from hunting.
In the three years the study has been conducted, Chamberlain said 21 bears have been killed in vehicle accidents.
John Trussell, a leading advocate for protecting the bears, said the study results do not surprise him, and he believes the population estimate is accurate. He did not push for ending the annual hunt, but he said he hopes the state will be cautious with it and consider limiting the number of hunters through a quota system.
“I think we have taken the surplus bears out,” he said.
Trussell is a hunter and has killed bears, but he said due to the population estimate, he has made the personal decision not to participate in the annual hunt.
Chamberlain said the lower figure doesn’t necessarily dictate stopping the hunts, and that 140 is a sustainable population.
Bobby Bond, a senior wildlife biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said the state had already thought the previous estimate was high when it started allowing the hunt. With the later hunting day having minimal impact on the population, he did not foresee any immediate change coming as a result of the study.
The state, though, is holding public hearings statewide on all hunting regulations to be set for the next two years, and a final decision on the hunt will come when the regulations are done.
The study, which remains ongoing and will continue through this year, is the most extensive yet on the bear population. It involved putting GPS collars on 80 bears to track their movement.
That was done primarily in connection with the planned widening of Ga. 96 between Interstate 16 and Houston County. The Georgia Department of Transportation and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources provided grants of $700,000 for the study.
A key goal was to track bear movements to determine where corridors could be placed under the road to allow bears to move safely to the other side. Fencing would funnel bears to the underpasses.
Chamberlain said the study indicates the bears are highly mobile, but they do not tend to cross the highway. He said tracking devices show bears walking right up to the edge of the woods by the highway, then turning back. The ones that do cross eventually get killed.
The corridors are still important, he said, because allowing free movement would help mix the gene pool in the population.
“Right now the highway, in its current state, is serving as a barrier to bear movements,” he said.
No other study like it has been done in the state, he said, and the results can be used in planning road projects in other areas where bears may be affected.
Many of the vehicle accidents with bears happen not on Ga. 96 but on side roads where the bears are more comfortable crossing -- and where drivers’ views may be more obstructed. Chamberlain urged motorists to use caution when driving in the area, especially on the side roads.
Bond said many bear fatalities on roads happen on U.S. 23, also known as the Cochran Short Route. It has a narrower opening through the woods that bears are also apparently more comfortable crossing than Ga. 96.
While the one-day hunt has drawn some criticism, some hunters have actually wanted it to be expanded, claiming the bear population is growing.
Bond said the GPS tracking in the study gives a good clue about why people may believe there are more bears than there actually are. The bears move quite a bit -- which leads to a lot of sightings -- but there aren’t really that many bears.
To cite a couple of specific examples, Bond said one male bear regularly travels between Tarversville in Twiggs County to Clinchfield in Houston County, about 12 miles away.
Another male that was captured and collared in the Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area in Houston is now a resident of Telfair County, about 50 miles away.
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.