By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
To say Traci Wood has a passion for bears would understate her love for the small black bear populations on opposite ends of the state in northeast and southwest Alabama.
A beaming Wood, State Wildlife Grants Coordinator with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ (ADCNR) Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, recently was among a team of biologists and researchers who were able to place collars on a trio of bear cubs in DeKalb County near Mentone.
A research program under State Wildlife Grants is continuing to monitor the black bear populations in the state. In its fourth year, the study looks at cub survival and den habitat.
“We’re evaluating the types of den structures the sows are using,” Wood said. “We are collaring cubs when they are 7 weeks of age, around the 5-pound mark. It’s basically a GPS collar. We also insert a PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tag into them. That collar expands as they grow. After six to nine months, that collar will fall off. So, if we trap that animal later, the PIT tag will identify as a cub we had previously collared.
“What that collar also tells us is if that cub has died. If they die, we receive a transmitter signal, and we can find the location of the den and try to determine the cause of death. This will give an indication of how cubs are recruiting into the population.”
When the cubs become adults and are collared again, the research team gathers a great deal more information about bear habits and habitat.
“It tells us where they are going, if they’re having cubs in the future,” Wood said. “Hopefully, it’s a long-term look at the life ecology of a bear from when it’s born to its reproductive age.”
The previous summer, WFF and the Auburn University research team, with Hannah Leeper as the research associate in the field, trapped females and attached GPS collars to determine where they made their winter dens. With the dens located, the team was able to find the cubs this spring near Mentone.
The team will move to the Mobile area this weekend to start performing den checks to hopefully find cubs to collar.
“The cubs in southwest Alabama are born at different times than north Alabama cubs,” Wood said. “We really don’t know why. It could be due to genetic reasons. Those cubs should be big enough to attach cub collars.”
Although the study is focused on the bear populations in those two areas, Wood said that doesn’t mean bears aren’t denning and birthing cubs in other areas of the state.
When den locations are determined, the researchers carefully approach the den to determine if the sow has given birth.
“When we approach, the mom usually gets off the den and runs off right away,” Wood said. “We go straight into the den, collar, weigh and measure the cubs and put them back. It’s a very quick process because we want to reduce the stress to the den and mom. We want her to come back as quickly as possible. We don’t want her to think we are a threat.
“She usually comes back within an hour, which is kind of surprising. I think she can sense – hear and smell – when we’re gone. That’s good news the sows are returning to the dens. Later, with the GPS, we can determine if the mom stayed at the den, or she may move her cubs to a different den.
“A couple of weeks after we collar the cubs, they are out of the den, walking around with mom. They’re big enough to keep up with mom, and they’re exploring and climbing trees.”
Wood said the bear population in northeast Alabama is doing great with sows producing large litters.
“It’s not uncommon to encounter three cubs on average in a den,” she said. “Those cubs are very healthy, look very pretty, and they’re surviving in that first year, which is the most critical period because they’re small, vulnerable to predators, and it is a lot of work to keep up with mom.
“Those cubs in north Alabama have very good habitat as well. They have canyons, caves and rock outcrops. Because of the canyons, they’re not running into people, houses or barriers. Even though we’re not seeing many sows’ dens in caves, most of the time they den in windrows after a tree cutting. It’s very thick. That seems to be their preference. It’s very removed from people as well. We’re seeing high cub survival in north Alabama.”