These sightings are normal, and to be expected across our state, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division.
Where have the bears been? Hibernating! Many Georgia black bears, especially females with young cubs, have spent the last several months, from about Thanksgiving to now, in a state of dormancy (biologists refer to this as “torpor”). During this annual phase of a bear’s life cycle, normal processes like eating, drinking, and other natural functions are on “sleep mode” while they endure the cold temperatures and harsh winter weather conditions. When hibernating, bears experience a reduced heart rate, respiration rate, and body temperature, and they survive by burning primarily fat reserves built up throughout the fall in the weeks and months preceding den entry.
“Not surprisingly, when bears emerge from their dens, they are hungry and ready to find food, which can sometimes put them in close proximity to people,” says Adam Hammond, state bear biologist with the Wildlife Resources Division. “When we become ‘BearWise’ and learn to live responsibly with bears, it allows us to find the best solutions for keeping bears wild, and protects the bears themselves, and our neighborhoods and businesses.”
What is BearWise? It is an education program developed by bear biologists from each of the 15 state wildlife agencies that make up the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (SEAFWA). The program, anchored by the website www.bearwise.org, offers citizens specific, detailed, and high-quality information, starting with the Six BearWise Basics:
- Never feed or approach bears: Feeding bears (intentionally or unintentionally) trains them to approach homes and people for more food. Bears will defend themselves if a person gets too close, so don’t risk your safety and theirs!
- Secure food, garbage and recycling: Food and food odors attract bears so don’t reward them with easily available food or garbage.
- Remove bird feeders when bears are active: Birdseed and other grains have a high calorie content making them very attractive to bears. The best way to avoid conflicts with bears is to remove feeders.
- Never leave pet food out: Feed outdoor pets portion sizes that will be completely eaten during each meal and then remove leftover food and food bowl. Securely store these foods so nothing is available to bears.
- Clean and store grills: After you use an outdoor grill, clean it thoroughly and make sure that all grease and fat is removed. Store cleaned grills and smokers in a secure area that keeps bears out.
- Let neighbors know: Share news with your friends and neighbors about recent bear activity and how to avoid bear conflicts. Bears have adapted to living near people; are you willing to adapt to living near bears?
“People should be proactive around their homes or businesses to ensure there is nothing that will attract bears and serve as a ‘free lunch,’” says Hammond. “Providing bears a meal might initially seem harmless, but bears that continue to have access to human-provided foods often become dependent upon people for food, sometimes leading to destructive and potentially harmful behavior, which can eventually lead to their own demise. We want to avoid this cycle.”
The black bear is a symbol of Georgia’s natural diversity, the only bear found in the state and a conservation success story. Though now considered the most common bear in North America, the species was nearly eradicated from Georgia in the 1930s due to unregulated market hunting, illegal harvest—including the killing of bears as “vermin,” and large-scale habitat loss. Sound wildlife management practices have restored Georgia’s black bears to a thriving population estimated at 4,100 bears statewide.
Black bears may legally be hunted during the season, which occurs each fall in Georgia in certain areas (www.georgiawildlife.com/hunting/regulations). However, the taking of bears during any other time of the year or the taking of bears illegally during the hunting season is called poaching. Prevent poaching of bears by reporting any illegal activity. Information can be reported by email, phone or in person. Visit http://gadnrle.org/ranger-hotline for details.
For more information on how to live responsibly with bears, visit www.bearwise.org.