Midstate bear population higher than thought, research suggests

A black bear is captured on a trail camera in Houston County on Nov. 12, 2016.
A black bear is captured on a trail camera in Houston County on Nov. 12, 2016.

New research estimates that the black bear population in Middle Georgia is much larger than previously thought, but some people still favor changes in an annual one-day hunt.

The hunt was held Saturday and 10 bears were taken, with half of those females. John Trussell, a leading advocate for preserving the bear population, said he would like to see the hunt moved to January when the female bears are mostly in dens and less likely to be seen.

Based on research by the University of Georgia, the state had previously estimated the bear population in Middle Georgia at 240.

However, with a new look at the same data as well as including a larger area and an additional year of research, the population is now estimated at 458.

Researchers reached that number using a model that estimates the number of bears in an area based on hair collected from snare traps. By calculating the probability, which is low, that a bear will leave a sample in the trap, researchers can use the number of samples collected to help determine the actual number of bears. DNA testing of the hairs is done to determine how many different samples are collected.

Bobby Bond, a senior wildlife biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said the latest estimate is based on the most sophisticated model used to date. He believes it’s also the most accurate estimate.

“It’s good news for the bear population,” he said. “I think it gives us a more rounder, completer picture of the bear population.”

UGA has been conducting the research since 2012 with funding from DNR and the Georgia Department of Transportation. The research is being used to plan for widening of Ga. 96 in Twiggs County and to determine where to put wildlife underpasses along the highway.

Trussell said he also believes the latest estimate is a good one, but he still thinks steps should be taken that ensure that not too many female bears are killed in the annual hunt. Another 28 bears have been lost in the past two years mostly due to highway accidents.

“The bear population is in good shape, but it’s still a low population that has to be closely monitored,” Trussell said. “We have to make sure we don’t take out too many female bears.”

The latest estimate was developed by Annaliese Ashley, a UGA graduate student who worked on it as part of her master’s degree thesis. She also believes the hunt should be moved to January.

“I would hope they would take my new numbers into consideration,” she said. “My concern about the hunt is the number of females that continue to get taken. Females are the ones that drive the bear population.”

The estimate looked at a 278,000-acre area mostly in Houston, Bleckley, Twiggs and Pulaski counties. It calculated about one bear per 625 acres in the area.

The one-day bear hunt began in 2011 and 34 bears were taken that year, causing concern among wildlife advocates. The next year 14 were taken. In 2013 the state moved the hunt from November to December, when the female bears start to become less visible. That resulted in only one bear being taken. In 2014 just five bears were taken, but last year 12 bears were taken, including nine females.