Todd Steury, Associate Professor in Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, has received an $85,287 grant from the State of Alabama for his project, “Estimated population size of black bears in Alabama.” The project will use hair snares to survey for black bears in and around Mobile County in the south and the Little River National Preserve in northeast Alabama.
According to Steury, black bears in Alabama belong to two subspecies, the eastern black bear and Florida black bear. There is a long-standing but small population of Florida black bears in southern Alabama near Mobile, and reports of new sightings of eastern black bears previously wiped out from northeastern Alabama. This project aims to find out just how many bears exist in the Mobile population through DNA analysis. This analysis could also help them learn other things about these southern Alabama bears – whether there is significant inbreeding, for example. They also hope to find out for certain whether bears have re-populated the northeastern corner of the state, or the sightings have been from a transient population.
The hair snares snag bits of hair and along with it, DNA, as the bears head toward Caven’s Hiawatha Valley Predator Bait and jam at a bait station. These snares will be laid out at random points within a sampling grid with 8 km square cells, based on the average home range of male black bears. Because bears roam widely in the fall, preparing for winter hibernation, the researchers hope to come close to snagging DNA the entire male black bear populations in the two survey areas.
“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 catch 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.”