Three faculty members working in Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences have received a $529,000 grant from the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to study black bear populations in Alabama. The four-year project, led by associate professors Todd Steury, Wayde Morse, and Mark Smith, will study the known black bear population in the Mobile River Basin area as well as a recently established, second population in northeast Alabama. The project has three main components: to collect DNA and behavior information from as much of the Alabama bear populations as possible; to assess public perceptions about bears and bear management; and to generate outreach materials to educate the public about living with bears.
The project, an extension of a pilot project completed in 2014, will use hair snares to sample for black bears in the study sites during the fall months, when bears are typically more active in their search for food before hibernation. In addition, the team will be working with the Birmingham Zoo to trap up to 20 bears and fit them with radio collars. This will allow the team not only to gather data about the health of individual bears, but to learn more about bear movements and their relative use of different habitat types. During this time, the project will survey the public in both regions about their attitudes towards bears and bear management. The information gain from such surveys is vital to generating wildlife management plans that will work for the surrounding communities. The results of this survey will be extended to outreach materials to help educate the public about living alongside bears.
“Biodiversity loss is one of the greatest current threats to the environment,” says Steury, “and also has varied consequences for human well-being.” Large carnivores like black bears are particularly important because of the many biological, political, social, and economic roles they can play. For instance, because they are larger they can often be more sensitive to habitat loss and can serve as a warning sign for habitat threats to other species. Their loss can often mean cascading effects through the ecosystem, and protecting them can also protect smaller species. They are also quick to generate public interest.
“Knowing exactly how many individual black bears exist in the core of population is critical to understanding how great the risk of elimination is in that population and how to manage that risk,” Steury says. “In addition, knowing how many individual black bears exist in northeast Alabama, and whether they are settled in the area or transient will help to determine if bears have repatriated that portion of the state. This will be crucial for planning how to manage bears in northeast Alabama.”