Bears are almost always in the news in May, June and July. This is true all over the eastern half of the country! Our bears live in the North Georgia mountains but are frequent visitors in counties just south of the mountains all the way to Atlanta. These vagabonds are almost always yearlings weighing about 100 pounds and traveling mostly in the late spring and early summer. Bears crossing through regions with high human activity are frequently road-killed. Have you ever tried crossing an interstate highway or a four-lane state highway near a major metro area? It is not easy for a human or a bear, especially after dark! Most of the time, vehicles that hit bears are totaled. Drivers and passengers are sometimes seriously injured or killed. Georgia wildlife officials don’t track the number of bear-vehicle collisions, but authorities say three bears were killed in a 10-day span in June 2011 alone as a result of crashes with motorists on North Georgia roads.
They have been seen swimming across coves on some very large lakes all over North Georgia. Yes, black bears are very good swimmers! I can recall at least three incidents of residents or boaters reporting bears swimming on different parts of 35,000-acre Lake Lanier. They funnel to the lake by traveling downstream along two big river systems which converge to form the lake. River systems, with their wooded floodplains, are favorite travel corridors for wandering bears.
Sightings of these bears are common along the Appalachian Trail. A few bears have learned to tear into hikers properly stored food supplies suspended high above the ground between trees by chewing through the rope and dropping food to the ground for dinner. Recently, near the southern end of the trail, six or eight campers yelling and jumping up and down failed to run a bear off of their food.
Yonah Mountain (near Helen, Georgia) recently harbored a sow with a big family of four yearling cubs that were getting into trouble. They entered a house through an unlocked door and made a mess of the kitchen cabinets, extracting all the food they could possibly find! This behavior is rare, but the bad news is this unusual boldness is obviously dangerous for both people and bears. It happens wherever black bears exist near houses and over time lose their fear of people. Georgia DNR’s Game Management section trapped two of the bears in one trap, tagged them and moved them to more remote bear habitat about 15 miles to the northwest.
Normally, this is far enough to keep them from finding their way back home, but that was not the case this time. All five bears were seen together again around Yonah not long after the move. Sometimes the stress of the trap, tranquilizer, and ear-tagging, weighing and other manipulations by humans is enough to deter any further nuisance activities by the offending bears. With this bear family, it worked! They have never been reported in a nuisance situation again.
June is the main month for dispersal of yearling bears into suburbs, so wildlife officials worry that increased bear activity may continue at least until blackberries ripen and provide their main summer food supply. Mostly, the suburb damage is done by displaced young male bears pushed out of their normal mountain range by dominant male bears and their own mothers during the June breeding season. They wander through suburbs seeking food in the form of sunflower seeds in bird feeders, hummingbird nectar, barbeque grills, pet food and garbage cans.
Practice your own preventative measures by removing or securing all of these items especially bird feeders and garbage. Take down bird feeders for the summer and move trash cans behind locked doors. Move hummingbird feeders and suspend them on a cable at least 10 feet above the ground. Bolt or lock all outbuildings and doors in the home. See more details in chapter two.
Do not under any circumstances feed bears! It is dangerous for you and a death sentence for the bears which will gradually lose their fear of people. Left alone with no food available, all bears will wander away without incident. These highly populated areas are not bear habitat, and they should not be encouraged to linger. They get there by mistake, pushed away from mama bear because of breeding season, and they will leave on their own if they can find a way out; eventually most do. Large river systems including the Chattahoochee, Chestatee, Etowah and Oconee here in Georgia are their preferred normal travel corridors because of wooded floodplains with less human development and activity.
Occasionally, wildlife biologists are reluctantly forced by the media and police departments to chase suburban bears around with dart guns attempting to catch the animals and relocate them back to the mountains where they came from. This is mostly a futile effort and bad for the bears, sometimes pushing them into traffic. They often end up dead on the highway or wandering aimlessly even farther than before, looking for a way out of their suburban predicament. Trouble also occurs when dogs chase bears up a tree in someone’s yard and a crowd gathers around the tree to gawk and snap photos on their cell phones. Sometimes police officers and firemen come, and they do the same thing! Sooner or later (mostly later) someone figures out, “Gee whiz, you know if we move these dogs and people out of here, the bear will come down on his own and run away from here as fast as he can go.”
If they are successfully captured by dart gun or culvert trap (a 48-inch, 10-foot long steel culvert with a pedal trigger and heavy guillotine door), they are most often inadvertently transported and dumped in unfamiliar territory in the home range of a dominant male bear who promptly runs them out, and the process starts all over again. Despite wearing ear tags, few transported bears are ever heard from again.
Several years ago, biologist David Carlock and I happened to be together at the main DNR office in Atlanta for some reason that I cannot remember. Trying to beat the traffic, we left to return to our office in Gainesville about 3 p.m. It was not long until we received a radio call about several bear sightings in the city of Marietta near a high school with subdivisions all around it. This is a highly populated area and no place for a bear. We had a dart gun in the truck, were the closest biologists to the area and reluctantly responded. Chasing a bear around on the ground and catching him with a dart gun is incredibly difficult as we both knew from experience. It is like finding a needle in a haystack.
We arrived at the scene in a subdivision where there was a big crowd gathered along with an Atlanta TV reporter who immediately stuck a microphone in our faces. It seemed like only a few seconds before someone shouted “There he goes!” We saw the bear race across a lawn and into a small patch of woods behind a house. We quickly loaded a dart with a tranquilizing drug, instructed the crowd to stay back, and went quietly into the woods. Lo and behold, there he was 30 yards in front of us looking frightened and confused by all the commotion. David took a shot and hit him just right, in the hindquarter. Now came the hard part, when the bear gets a full five or 10 minutes to run anywhere he wants to go until the drug takes effect! We waited the full 10 minutes, enlisted some brave volunteers, and began the search, noting we could see houses in the distance all around the back side of the small wooded patch. Not long after, we heard someone shout “Here he is!” We ran to the spot and saw him lying next to a pool of water in dense woods with part of his nose submerged. We pulled him back and verified that he was still breathing! It was a long hot walk to the truck lugging a 100-pound bear, but we got there and loaded him in the pickup bed as we did not have a culvert trap with us. After a few words with the TV reporter, we pulled out and headed north toward bear country. I can’t remember which one of us said it, but one of us said “Can you believe it? How lucky can we get?”
Then we hit a big rush hour traffic jam in a busy northern suburb of Atlanta. While sitting at a red light, we felt the truck begin to rock a little. We looked back and saw the bear sitting up and wobbling back and forth, signs that he was recovering from the drug. Drivers behind us who were witnessing the event started honking their horns. I quickly loaded a syringe, got out and stuck him in the hip. In just a couple of minutes, he slumped over and went back to sleep. We got out of there by the skin of our teeth, thankful that he did not have enough of his faculties to jump out of the back of the truck into all of that traffic! We got to our office, loaded him into a trap and parked him in the shade. The next day we took all of our measurements, pulled a tiny tooth for aging, tagged both ears and pulled him 50 miles north into the mountains, never to hear from him again. What an adventure!
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