By Chris Jaworowski, Wildlife Biologist
Black bears found in Alabama are a subspecies generally referred to as the Florida black bear (Ursus americanus floridanus). The Florida black bear is found scattered in isolated populations within Florida, south Georgia, and south Alabama. Distribution of the Florida black bear in Alabama is restricted to the Mobile River Basin and adjacent areas. American black bears (Ursus americanus americanus) from southern Appalachian populations occasionally enter northern Alabama. Current population estimates for the Florida black bear in Alabama from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are at less than 50 animals. The Florida black bear is not currently listed as a threatened subspecies under the Endangered Species Act, but is categorized in Alabama as a species of highest conservation concern. Though much of the information on Alabama’s remaining black bear population is incomplete or unconfirmed, it is clear that this species needs special attention to avoid possible extirpation from Alabama. In order to save Alabama’s black bear populations, we must determine their special needs while also educating the public about the many misconceptions concerning their presence in Alabama.
Black bears in Alabama are normally black with a brown muzzle and an occasional white blaze on the chest. Average body weights range from 150 to 350 pounds for adult males and 120 to 250 pounds for females with body lengths from 3 to 6 feet. Black bears are classified as carnivores even thought their omnivorous diet consists mainly of plant material. Black bears are poor predators and only eat vertebrate animals when the opportunity presents itself. Female black bears typically begin having cubs at three to five years of age; however, in marginal habitats, this may increase to seven years. Mating generally occurs in the summer months, and cubs are born in winter dens in January and February. Litter size can range from one to five with twins being most common. The sex ratio at birth usually one male to one female. Cubs measure only 8 inches in length and weigh from 8 to 12 ounces when born.
Habitat needs for Alabama’s black bears consists of large contiguous acreages of bottomland hardwood habitat. Prime habitat consists of escape cover, dispersal corridors, abundant and diverse natural food sources, water and sufficient denning sites. Unfortunately, extensive land clearing for agriculture in the coastal plain has resulted in the loss of millions of acres of bear habitat in the Southeast over the last century. Alabama’s remaining bear populations are restricted to about 146 square miles in portions of Baldwin, Clarke, Mobile, and Washington counties. Currently, conservation groups like the Alabama Black Bear Alliance (ABBA) are working to determine the abundance, ecology, and conservation strategies necessary to protect and maintain black bears in this state. ABBA is a non-profit conservation consortium formed in 1997 by conservation organizations including the Alabama Wildlife Federation, the Alabama chapter of the Nature Conservancy, and state and federal agencies, the forest industry, agricultural organizations, the academic community, and a broad coalition of landowners.
Public perceptions concerning black bears vary greatly and are extremely important to the survival of this subspecies in Alabama. Black bears are mistakenly thought of as extremely aggressive predators that are a danger to humans and livestock. The truth is that black bears are extremely shy animals that are very intimidated by people. Black bears are actually very poor predators and their diets typically consist of 95 percent plant material and 5 percent protein, which comes from eating insects. Unprovoked attacks on humans are uncommon throughout the black bear’s range and are extremely rare. Most attacks occur when bears are surprised, cornered, or otherwise threatened. Interactions between bears and humans should be avoided because all bears are potentially dangerous and could inflict serious injury. Sows with cubs can be very defensive and aggressive if she perceives that her young are being threatened. Looking at the recent history of black bear attacks in the eastern United States there has been only one fatality in decades.
Do not attempt to attract bears with food. Feeding bears is a bad idea that can lead to serious problems. It attracts bears to places they normally would not be and can cause them to lose their natural wariness of humans. If they continue to be fed, the bears will associate people with food sources and approach other people for food. This may seem “cute” to some people at first, but as the bears become bolder serious problems can occur. If a problem results from this situation it could lead to injury to people and/or the death of the bear.
The Alabama black bear’s future is in jeopardy. Black bears will be extirpated from Alabama’s landscape if we do not understand the special needs of this magnificent creature. Conservation groups like the Alabama Black Bear Alliance need funding for research and habitat protection. Public perceptions should be based on facts and interactions between humans and bears must be limited to avoid disruption of the bear’s life cycle. Illegal killing or losses due to vehicle collisions and other causes of bear mortality must be minimized for this subspecies to survive. It is our job to save Alabama’s largest mammal.