Georgia Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologists are hoping to participate in a multi-state study this summer that could provide more information about the number of bears across the entire Southern Appalachian range.
Adam Hammond is a wildlife biologist at the DNR’s Armuchee game management office. He said Monday the project is not a done deal yet, but if the other states buy in, it would include North Carolina, Tennessee and South Carolina.
“It would be a hair-snare type of study, where we would study DNA to use as part of a mark-and-recapture study to estimate population size,” Hammond said.
A hair-snare study involves placing barbed wire fencing around bait so it would snag some of the bear hair as they move under the wire to get to the food.
Biologists use the hair to establish DNA markers, which help them determine how many bears are in a given area. Then, further down the road, they can get an idea of their range.
It’s a simple and cost-effective way to develop hard data, according to Joseph D. Clark, who would be participating as head of the Southern Appalachian Research Branch of the U.S. Geological Survey in Knoxville.
“We’re identifying these bears individually,” Clark said.
One of the benefits of a multi-state study would be to help set hunting quotas, he added.
Todd Steury, an associate professor in the school of forestry and wildlife sciences at Auburn University, has been studying the black bear population around Little River Canyon.
His research team used the hair snare method in 2014 and 2015, and they’d like to participate in the 2016 study.
“We have DNA from 15 different bears and we don’t think there are a whole lot more than that,” Steury said.
His team set of goal of capturing 10 bears and putting radio collars on them to track their movements, but so far they’ve only been able to collar two females.
Neither of them has ranged far, but he said that’s not unusual for females.
“Most of it is right there in the canyon,” Steury said.
Clark said female black bears typically have a range of 15 square kilometers, almost 40 square miles, whereas a male’s might be four or five times that.
The mountainous areas near Blue Ridge, Chatsworth, Ellijay and Jasper would get most of the attention from the Armuchee office biologists.
Hammond said a serious failure of the acorn crop in 2013 might have helped spread the range out a little bit across North Georgia.
“The estimates get better if you’re able to do this across state lines,” Hammond said.
Georgia has three distinct bear populations — in North Georgia, in Middle Georgia along the Ocmulgee River, and in Southeast Georgia around the Okefenokee Swamp.
In May 2012, a large black bear caused a stir in Floyd County when it showed up along the trail between the library and Ridge Ferry Park. Experts said it would likely move away from the area when it got dark, and it apparently did.