July 23, 2003 | By: Aimee D. Heald
CUMBERLAND, Ky.

For more than 150 years the American black bear virtually ignored Kentucky’s lush forests. Recently though, the bears have been venturing back into the state and taking up residence.

David Maehr, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture conservation biologist, said the bears were gone by 1850 after being wiped out by habitat alteration, direct persecution and hunting.

“We’re witnessing a phenomenon in and around Kingdom Come State Park,” he said. “The black bear has begun to recolonize here. For our research, we’re trying to figure out how many there are, where they are going and what landscape features are important to them.”

Maehr is now in the second year of a project funded by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. He and his assistants have captured approximately 15 bears in the past year and fitted them with radio collars to track their movement and interactions with other black bears and even human habitation.

“The collars allow us to track the bears on the ground and from aircraft to figure out where they are going and what kinds of habitats they prefer,” he said. “So far it’s very encouraging. Last year, five of the females produced cubs and cubs are the real key to the future of the population.”

Although Maehr and his team have only tagged a dozen or so bears in the past year, they’ve been able to document around 20 in the area. Through computer simulations and GIS technology, the team will be able to determine the potential for the population to expand.

“One of the most interesting parts of this study is that the bears are moving into an area that is already developed to some extent and occupied by humans,” he said. “It’s different from anywhere in the country right now.”

Several years ago, black bears moved into New Jersey from Pennsylvania and Maehr said the population there is doing well.

The project is churning up more interest than just research. The UK English department has a summer project called Summer Environmental Writing Program where students write about a summer experience.

“A lot of these students are in the woods for the first time in their lives,” he said. “They are getting to witness one of the most beautiful parts of North America and having a chance to see a black bear in its natural habitat. They’ll go back and write about their experience and maybe even get published.”

Maehr is encouraged by the growing black bear population for many reasons, but a point he emphasized is that black bears returning to Kentucky are an indicator of a healthy landscape.

Many people make up the team that is researching the black bears, including doctoral students Hannah Harris, David Unger and lead field technician Michael Orlando who is working toward a master’s degree in forestry.

Forestry doctoral student John Cox is helping with the bear project while he works on his dissertation. After graduation he will stay on with the department as a post-doctoral student in biodiversity. He’s interested in the recolonization as well and said it will bring many opportunities to the area.

“This involves a recolonization of southeast Kentucky, which is one of the most rugged and relatively undisturbed parts of the state,” Cox said. “The recolonization of a large carnivore represents a trend in wildlife like elk, bobcat and white tailed deer repopulating the same area. It will be interesting to see how the population responds over the years.”

Maehr agrees that more black bears in Kentucky would be positive for the habitat and for the economy.

“More black bears in Kentucky would reflect very well on Kentucky’s growing appreciation of nature,” he said. “We should recognize that natural qualities and pristine landscapes are economically beneficial to the Commonwealth.”

He said, though, with a rise in bear numbers also comes human responsibility. Local residents have to learn how to get along with the new animal.

“Hopefully our research will help the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources manage that situation as it develops,” he added.

Maehr said when studying a species like the black bear, a year or two is never enough.

“This is really not the kind of animal you study in a year or two,” he said. “Hopefully there will be enough interest in funding over the next decade that we can study it that long. In 10 years we’ll probably have a really good idea where this population is going.”

Contact: 

Writer: Aimee D. Heald 859-257-4736, ext. 267
Source: David Maehr 859-257-4807