By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
When the photo popped up on my smartphone, I wasn’t sure what it was. Something was swimming in the south end of Mobile Bay, and I facetiously asked, “Killer whale?”
The reply came back, “Black bear.” I expanded the photo, and, yep, there was a telltale round, black ear. I knew this photo, taken by inshore fishing guide Patrick Hill, would go viral.
However, as rare as this sighting may be, this is not the first time it’s happened. About 20 or so years ago, a black bear swam the south end of Mobile Bay, hung out on the Eastern Shore a little while, and swam back to where he came from, probably headed toward a population of black bears in the Grand Bay area.
Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division Large Carnivore Coordinator Thomas Harms was not really surprised that a black bear took a shortcut recently, headed west from the Fort Morgan area.
“We have bear pictures from Orange Beach and Fort Morgan and the Weeks Bay area,” Harms said. “I think there is a corridor there. These bears sometimes just make a big loop.
“Bears are excellent swimmers. It was probably just a young male on the move.”
If anyone should see a bear, Harms said the main course of action is to remain calm and let the bear leave the area.
“There’s no need to freak out if you see a bear,” he said. “It’s kind of like my father taught me about chainsaws. He said don’t be scared of them but respect them. It’s the same thing with animals. If you’re scared of it, just like chainsaws, it has the potential to hurt you. With a bear, don’t fear it. When you see one, give it space and let it go away on its own.
“We’ve never had a bear attack in Alabama. It’s even rare in the states where the population densities of bears are much higher. Just give them space, and let them know you’re there. They don’t see very well and don’t hear very well. Say whatever you want to, just be loud and let them know you’re there. They will typically turn around and leave.”
Harms said the black bear males in Alabama can reach weights of 250-300 pounds and live to be 15-20 years old. Females usually weigh 150-200 pounds. Harms said the likely adult population of bears for the entire state is estimated at 300-400 animals. The population in northeast Alabama has a Georgia ancestry, while the southwest population has Florida roots.
He said a new small population has popped up in Conecuh National Forest in Escambia County.
“I’ve got pictures of a sow with cubs in Conecuh National Forest,” Harms said. “If you have a sow with cubs, you know you have a viable population of bears living there.”
Harms said the annual cycle for black bears starts in February when the sows drop their cubs. In April and May, the males start expanding their home range first, followed by the females with the yearling cubs. The year-old females will settle on the fringes of the mother’s home range, but the yearling males are run completely out of the area, which is when the bulk of the human contact occurs.
“These young males get pushed out by their mothers, and then they get pushed even farther by the adult males,” Harms said. “These males are young and dumb. If they detect a dominant male, usually by smell, they’ll keep moving until they find a place where they don’t detect any other males. These are typically the ones that get turned around and into the suburbs and cities.
“The bulk of the calls we get this time of year is these young males passing through people’s yards in downtown Birmingham. It happens every year. We had one in downtown Daphne. One went from Georgia, through Alabama, all the way to Mississippi. That bear may stay there, but it could turn around and come back.”
Right now, June and July is the breeding season for Alabama bears, which means the adult males will be on the move.
“The large adult males are looking around for receptive females this time of year,” Harms said. “June and July is when the adult males are moving the most. The home range for an adult male can be up to 59 square miles, depending on the habitat. For females, the home range is about 20 square miles.