The Bear Facts

by Carol L. Spence


TUCKED IN AGAINST A ROCK outcrop and sheltered from January’s frozen cold by a fallen tree and a nest of leaves, the female black bear gives birth to twins—a black-coated female weighing between 8 and 12 oz. and a male who is a bit smaller than his sister and ginger-headed (one of the breed’s color variations).

Six weeks later, on a day when the sky and breeze promised spring, researchers from the College of Agriculture’s Department of Forestry go bear hunting.

Not with rifles but with an antenna. Not to kill but to count.

IN THE 18TH CENTURY, black bears in Kentucky outnumbered deer, elk, and other large predators. By the end of the next century, they were essentially gone from the state. Habitat loss due to human development, overhunting, and overzealous logging practices drove bear populations into the most rugged and remote parts of the Appalachians in Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee.

But as new growth forests have matured in Kentucky’s craggy Appalachian foothills, habitat has returned and with it the bears. Since the 1980s, first males, then females have eased back into the southeastern and northeastern regions of the state. The largest population can be found around Pine Mountain, but they also are coming across the Tennessee border into McCreary County, descendants of 14 females and cubs seeded in 1996 by the U.S. Park Service along the Tennessee part of Big South Fork.

The recolonization process is a slow one. Females expand the breeding population, and they do it in increments. That female cub born back in January will eventually set up a home range adjacent or overlapping her mother’s. Her brother will be the explorer, leading the colonization, spending 95 percent of his time alone far from his birth territory.

John Cox, adjunct assistant professor in the UK Department of Forestry, has been studying black bears in Kentucky and Florida for the past nine years, working first for David Maehr, a UK forestry professor, and then taking over the project after Maehr died in a plane crash in 2008.

In 2009, Cox and graduate student John Hast, using genetic testing, determined that the bears coming into the state from Pine Mountain and the bears in McCreary County are two distinct populations.

“What we found is that all of the bears in Eastern Kentucky were genetically related to bears in West Virginia and Virginia, while those in McCreary County were largely descendants of the original Tennessee founders,” Cox said. “So either they haven’t reached the density where they’ve spread out to interact, or I-75 remains a significant barrier to these populations.”

GPS collars placed on some of the Pine Mountain bears help Cox track the males’ extensive travels.

Male black bears make major movements, particularly during the breeding season. For that reason, they’ve been seen as far west as Henry County, along the Palisades, and in the Knobs area. As far as Cox has been able to determine, the core of the actual breeding population, the females, currently is restricted to a four- or five-county area in southeast Kentucky.


John Cox

John Cox holds a VHF antenna aloft, as he listens for the transmitted beep from a collared black bear.


THE BEEPS GROW LOUDER as Cox, graduate students Joe Guthrie, Sean Murphy, and Shane Tedder, and Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Mike Strunk follow graduate student Ben Augustine into the woods as he tweaks the VHF receiver. The terrain is ankle-twisting steep. The company’s progress is further hampered by a vast stretch of deadfall, pine trees killed by the southern pine beetle in the 1990s. There are no paths this deep into the woods, so traveling in most places means scrambling over or tight-rope walking along barkless tree trunks. In some cases, it can take hours to reach a den.

THIS FINAL PHASE of the hunt is called denning. The previous summer, Murphy set up camp in the Daniel Boone National Forest and surveyed McCreary County’s black bear population by using a hair snare, a triangular-shaped piece of barbed wire with a doughnut or other food item in the center. Murphy estimated the county’s population at 40 bears, but because it’s such a small sample, there’s a confidence interval of 30 to 90. Murphy also placed VHF transmitter collars on some captured bears. These lead the team to females in their dens the following spring.

“What it tells us is those bears that were reintroduced into Tennessee have made their way into Kentucky,” Cox said. “The interesting thing that reflects the colonization phenomena was that most of the hits we got in the northern parts or the outskirts of McCreary County were from males. All the female hits were down near the reintroduction site. So the bears are expanding, but they’re not growing a lot in numbers, given they have one of the slowest reproductive rates of any mammal.”

THE FEMALE IS SITTING LETHARGICALLY BESIDE HER DEN—in this case more of a nest against a rock outcrop, sheltered by a fallen tree. The men get lucky this time. They can tranquilize her from a distance. Sometimes the female is tucked back in a small cave-like opening that leaves the men little room to maneuver.

This mother doesn’t run. A few will take off and return later, but about 80 percent of the mothers will stay with their cubs.

Her body’s metabolism is so slow at this time of year that the drug takes awhile to work. Cox and crew wait silently below her, hidden from her line of sight by a rock wall. A woodpecker’s call is the lone sound in the late winter woods. The team speaks only when necessary and then in whispers. They want to keep the female calm. Though the tranquilizer immobilizes her, she still can see and hear.

BLACK BEARS ARE SMART, opportunistic creatures. They lead solitary lives spent mostly in the search for food. Humans are often a good source, with their unsecured garbage cans and dumpsters, deer feeders, and beehives. But mixing bears and humans is not a good idea, and the bears are usually on the losing end.

bear cubs




Sean Murphy and Ben Augustine hold four-week-old cubs. This male and female will be microchipped so they can be identified throughout their lives.


Cox is studying how nuisance behavior affects the long-term fitness of black bears. He currently is monitoring two sets of females in the Pine Mountain area. One set is clearly dumpster diving, which he knows from their GPS data. The other set typically is staying up in the woods, away from people.

“How does that kind of behavior affect the long-term survival of those bears?” he wonders. “Does it affect the number of cubs they have? Can the cubs learn that kind of bad behavior from their mother? Is it socially transmitted?”

Through long-term GPS tracking of these individuals and their offspring, he hopes to understand better how bears and humans are interacting.

“It’s really taken the local population and some of the resource personnel some time to adjust,” he said, ‘in terms of people’s attitudes changing and becoming more comfortable with bears, but not going to the other extreme and trying to feed them.”

Strunk agrees. He works with schools to educate students about black bears. It’s important, he says. “They’re adapting to us faster than we’re adapting to them.”

CHARACTERIZED AS CARNIVORES, bears are actually omnivorous, taking advantage of a variety of food sources. They eat berries and nuts (called mast), spreading soft mast from one place to the next.

“Bears are seed trucks, perhaps more so in places like Florida, where they often rely more on soft mast,” Cox said. “Here in Kentucky, they eat a lot more hard mast, like acorns.”

They also consume larvae, occasionally scavenge a carcass and, if they feel up to it, Cox said, they’ll kill a deer fawn or elk calf.

COX GIVES THE ALL-CLEAR from the top of the outcropping, and the team scrambles to join him. It’s steep and requires finding a toehold, grabbing an exposed root and heaving up and over.

They move quickly and quietly. No one wants to stress these animals more than is necessary, because every individual is critically important in such a small, recovering population.

A quick check of the female. She’s lying peacefully, though her eyes are alert. They cover her face to keep her calm. She weighs nearly twice what she weighed when Murphy collared her the previous summer. Her coat is thick and only slightly softer than pig bristles, surprisingly. She has a thick undercoat at this time of year. She’ll lose that in warm weather; Cox says they can look quite bald during the summer shed.

Check her teeth. She’s missing a molar and an incisor, but otherwise they look healthy. Cox estimates she’s somewhere between 8 and 12 years old, a good age and obviously an experienced mother.

Pluck a few hairs for DNA analysis.

And then Strunk pops up, holding her two cubs wrapped in his coat. The female is plucky and curious, the ginger-headed male is shaking and crying for his mother—wee things weighing no more than a few pounds, but with claws already an impressive length.

The cubs’ sex is quickly determined, hair plucked, and a microchip injected under each one’s scruff. In the future, if that bear is ever recaptured, a scanner will help researchers ID it.

The mother stirs a bit; the tranquilizer is wearing off. Murphy and Guthrie tuck the cubs against her belly, and the company quietly retreats the way they came.

Cox will continue his studies—investigating the influence of roads and human activity on black bears and monitoring their population growth—all the time hoping his work will help ensure our peaceful coexistence with this returning Kentucky native. ◆


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University of Kentucky College of Agriculture