Research shows Middle Georgia’s bears are likely mating with their relatives.
Wildlife management officials are concerned about inbreeding in the isolated community of about 300 bears that mostly live along the Ocmulgee River south of Interstate 16. One idea being considered is to bring in a few female bears from the larger population in North Georgia in order to diversify the gene pool and improve the health of the animals.
John Trussell, a Houston County resident who has been a leading advocate for the bears, hopes the state goes forward with the plan.
“I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “It’s probably past due.”
The proposal for the new bears is in the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ new long-range plan to manage the three bear populations in the state, including one in and around the Okefenokee Swamp.
Estimates of the Middle Georgia bear population have varied widely, but the management plan puts it at roughly 300. That’s down from a study released in 2016 — and considered to be the most thorough ever — that put it at 458. But Trussell said the 2016 study may have over counted, and he thinks 300 is probably closer to reality.
The state allows a one-day hunt for bears in Middle Georgia. The hunt takes place in January, when most females are denning, and this year only two were taken, one male and one female. Due to the low number being taken, the management plan allows for the hunt to continue.
Many more bears are lost to road accidents. Bobby Bond, senior wildlife biologist for DNR, said in 2017 there were 17 bears killed on roads and so far this year 15 have been killed.
Bond said the management plan is a draft, and that the final version must be approved by top DNR leaders. Even if approved, it could be five years before new bears arrive.
“This is all thoughts and theories right now and as far as when this is going happen, that’s up in the air,” he said.
He noted that there are wide opinions about bears. Some people are scared of them and call DNR whenever they see one and want something done about it, even though there are no documented bear attacks in Georgia. Others want the bears protected and are strongly opposed to even a 1-day hunt.
The management plan refers to University of Georgia research of the Middle Georgia bears that found genetic issues believed to be the result of inbreeding, including male bears with cryptorchidism, in which one testicle fails to descend.
Another possibility raised in the plan is creating a corridor to allow movement between the Middle Georgia population and the Okefenokee bears. That is a more ambitious and longer-term plan that would involve land conservation efforts along the Ocmulgee and Altamaha rivers.
But there are reasons to think it could work.
A Middle Georgia bear fitted with a tracking collar ranged as far as Lumber City, which isn’t far from the upper range of Okefenokee bears. But researchers concluded that despite the close proximity, the two populations are not likely to link up without help.
Connecting the Middle Georgia bears to the North Georgia bears is considered out of the question due to Atlanta sprawl, Bond said.