May 20, 2005 | By: Aimee Nielson
CUMBERLAND, Ky.
UK Graduate Student Hannah Harris shows local school children how to track bears at Kingdom Come State Park.  Photo by A. Nielson

UK Graduate Student Hannah Harris shows local school children how to track bears at Kingdom Come State Park. Photo by A. Nielson

Last summer, Kingdom Come State Park visitors watched as a mother bear and five cubs wandered through the grounds in their “new” home. New since black bears had virtually disappeared from Kentucky approximately 100 years ago, but have now begun to return to the area. A recent festival in Cumberland celebrated the black bear’s return and provided opportunities for bear education.

“We want to educate folks about the black bear and the repopulation of the black bear in Kentucky,” said Jeremy Williams, University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension agent for agriculture and natural resources in Harlan County. “Bears were nearly extinct and hadn’t been here since the late 1800s due to human harassment, environmental changes and population increases. We’re glad to see the bears coming back. Pine Mountain has a great habitat for the black bear – it’s what’s bringing the bears in here from surrounding areas and states such as Virginia and West Virginia.”

The festival, in its second year, served to educate the public about black bears and also bring the community together with fun activities for all ages. At Kingdom Come State Park, local school children learned all about black bears, viewed black bear art and photographs and practiced archery and fishing skills. They also got to make animal tracks with plaster of Paris, see bear hides and skulls, and learn how researchers track bears in the area via safe, battery-operated collars and tracking devices.

Hannah Harris is a graduate student at UK working toward a doctorate in wildlife biology.
She came to UK specifically to work on the black bear project and has been tracking bears at Kingdom Come for a few years.

“There’s no question that things are changing in the Park,” she said, referring to increasing black bear numbers. “Part of my project is to follow the bears and see where they are traveling and look for problems they are having. The other part is to talk to people of this area about their experiences with bears. People are really interested and excited and kind of adopting the bear as a mascot for the area, which is really neat.”

Harris said it was exciting to teach the children basic bear biology and to tell them how she does her job. She said it’s the same type of thing that got her interested in wildlife biology when she was young.

Kingdom Come State Park Manager Rick Fuller said the return of the black bear has been a boon to the Park.

An adult black bear male, weighing more than 250 lbs.

An adult male, weighing more than 250 lbs. Photographed by Jeremy Williams in Sept. 2004

“The exposure we’re getting is great,” he said. “People are finding out about us. But we want them to know that there is a potential danger with bears because they are the largest predator that has ever lived in this part of the country. We’ve put up several signs around the park giving the public general information about the bears. The one thing we want to do is make sure people realize black bears are not cute, cuddly teddy bears. You can’t go up and give it a big hug. A bear, just like a human, has a comfort zone and if you invade that comfort zone, no telling what the reaction will be and no two bears have the same comfort zone. As long as we treat them with respect, we don’t have a problem.”

Fuller said he has seen a tremendous surge of interest about black bears in the local community. A dedicated group of people, who regularly come to the park to see bears, call themselves the “black bear watchers.” Fuller said sometimes this group knows more about where the bears are than he does because they are there almost daily.

Jennifer McDaniel is a member of the black bear watchers and she said it’s given her the opportunity to meet people she might never have known otherwise.

“It’s an historic event for Kentucky,” she said. “My favorite thing that has happened is a rebirth of the community. I’ve met these people and their families because of the black bears and they have become wonderful friends. The community has come alive again.”

Attendance at the 2nd annual Black Bear Festival was expected to reach 5,000, which Williams said is up from about 1,000 last year.

“We’ve got citizens, agencies, local government and UK coming together and working toward a common goal,” he said. “It’s amazing to see so many groups of people come together to promote the black bear and educate people. We want to show people the black bear is our new neighbor and we have to learn to coexist.

Contact: 

Writer: Aimee Nielson 859-257-4736, ext. 267

Contact: Jeremy Williams 606-573-4464