The MDWFP’s black bear program expects to get closer and learn more
By Richard Rummel
The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (MDWFP) started a Black Bear Program almost 15 years ago to conduct research on the population within the state. At that time, there were less than 50 bears. Today, it is estimated that number has more than tripled.
The recent appointments of myself as Black Bear Program Leader and Jamie Holt as Black Bear Biologist is a clear indication that the MDWFP is poised to reinvigorate field activities and research on Mississippi’s bear population.
In recent years, without full-time personnel devoted solely to the program, the MDWFP concentrated efforts on three areas: 1) maintaining a database of documented black bear sightings in the state via Black Bear Sighting Reports and submitted trail camera photos; 2) responding to potential human-bear conflicts; and 3) informing the public on bears by giving presentations to civic clubs, sportsmen organizations, and outdoor festivals. Each of these efforts should continue to assist in attaining the future goals of the program.
Simply by maintaining a sightings database, we have been able to document the slow-but-steady expansion into areas of the state not previously inhabited by bears—or at least not to the extent that we are now seeing. For example, an increasing number of bears are being documented in east-central Mississippi counties bordering the Alabama state line. Hunting clubs and other landowners in Lauderdale, Kemper, Noxubee, and neighboring counties have submitted trail camera photos to provide us with evidence of bear presence in areas that previously had gone unreported. One bear even spent several days within the Meridian city limits visiting donut shop dumpsters and feeding on pears from a tree at an apartment complex before eventually returning to the woods.
We cannot be certain of the origin of the bears in this area, but we strongly suspect that a few are venturing into Mississippi from Alabama. Bear researchers in Alabama are documenting a growing bear population in lower Alabama in the Mobile River Basin. The bears that are showing up in Mississippi are likely young males dispersing from this population. Female bears begin dispersing when they are approximately 18 months old, and they tend to stay closer to their natal range (the area where they were born). Males, like most of the large carnivore species, travel farther in search of a territory without a resident breeding male so they can establish their own home range. We also speculate that the increasing number of bears documented in east-central Mississippi could be individuals moving northward from the coastal population. Traveling bears tend to follow river courses or other wooded corridors and the extensive area encompassing the Pascagoula River Basin and its northern reaches provide ideal dispersal routes for bears.
As Mississippi’s bear population increases in number and expands its geographic range, it is inevitable that there will be an increase in human-bear encounters. We receive many calls from people who have observed a bear in the woods, perhaps with cubs, or crossing a road. They usually are excited at the opportunity to actually see a bear in Mississippi. And, to be honest, these are the type of calls we like to get. On the other hand, we understand that not everyone is that excited.
Having been essentially absent from the Mississippi landscape until recently, it is understandable that many people have concerns—or even fears—that bears can be near their residences or areas where they recreate. This sentiment is generally because of a lack of understanding of black bear behavior and habits. This is one of the top priorities of the revitalized Bear Program: to devote more resources to educate the public about peacefully co-existing with bears and to proactively address potential or actual human-bear conflict situations.
As we develop both short- and long-term goals for the Black Bear Program and lay the groundwork for future activities, we are renewing working relationships with landowners and hunting clubs on whose properties the MDWFP previously had the privilege of conducting field research. Many of these landowners have continued to provide us with valuable sightings information, including trail camera photos of female bears with cubs which, without the landowners’ interest and cooperation, would have been unavailable to us. These property owners in occupied bear habitat are among the most ardent supporters of black bear conservation in Mississippi and we sincerely appreciate their support and willingness to allow us access to their properties to conduct research.
We are currently assessing what we know about bears in Mississippi to help us 1) identify gaps in our knowledge and 2) to target priority areas for trapping and radio-collaring bears. We are grateful to the executive leadership of MDWFP for giving us the opportunity to continue to acquire the science-based knowledge necessary to effectively manage this unique member of our wildlife heritage. The Black Bear Program is definitely back on track.
Richard Rummel is the Black Bear Program Leader for the MDWFP