University of Kentucky College of Agriculture

Black Bear Ecology and Colonization in Eastern KYbear cubs


When Daniel Boone led settlers through the Cumberland Gap in 1775 the black bear outnumbered white-tailed deer, elk, and every other large mammal in eastern Kentucky’s forests.  By the 1850s it was gone.  Today, the black bear is once again a part of Pine Mountain and the regenerating forests of extreme eastern Kentucky.  The successful study and conservation of this important forest animal will not only help to protect important wild lands in the Commonwealth, but will serve as an umbrella for the many other species that make the biodiversity of this region especially rich.

In a collaboration between the Department of Forestry and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) we have been studying the voluntary return of the black bear to one of its former strongholds.  With widespread forest clearing and unmitigated harvest now a thing of the past, Kentucky is once again an attractive place to live for an increasing number of bears.  Since formal studies began in 2002 we have captured and radio-collared 62 black bears and have collected thousands of telemetry locations on these animals.  Some of the bears wear global positioning system collars that collect up to 6 locations each day.  These data have been useful in identifying key habitats and population centers.  For the most part, study animals inhabit mixed deciduous hardwood forests growing on steep slopes and at relatively high elevation.  The primary population centers identified thus far include Pine Mountain in the vicinity of Kingdom Come State Park, and the area in and around Cumberland Gap National Historic Park.  Another collaboration with faculty and students from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) is using hair snaring devices to census other areas where access for trapping and collaring is more difficult.  This work, which relies on genetic analyses of hair samples collected at bait sites, will help us estimate population numbers and better understand the current distribution of the growing bear population.  Another element of our research involves the use of Forward-looking Infrared (FLIR) cameras to document the distribution and abundance of bears during a brief period when leaves have fallen from trees, but before the bears disappear into winter dens (hibernacula).  Finally, a nearly completed dissertation has detailed the attitudes of local human residents who live in Kentucky bear range.  This work has revealed an interesting relation between the local communities and bears that is both supportive of the bear yet ambivalent about official efforts to manage the population and its wild habitat.  Already, bears are a focal point of activity for summer visitors to Kingdom Come State Park where bears are routinely seen, but also are acclimatized to people and their food.  This situation has already created challenges for managers of natural resources who must balance the interest of the public with the welfare of individual bears and their growing population.

The black bear in Kentucky lives much like its relatives in neighboring West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee.  Most females have chosen small caves and rock outcrops for den sites.  These are usually cozy, secluded spots near cliff lines and other rugged topography.  They emerge from their dens in late spring, mate during the summer, and feast on acorns, insects and hickory nuts in the fall – putting on fat for up to 5 months of hibernating.  During this time – usually early February – the cubs are born.  We have documented litters ranging in size from 2 to 5.  Clearly, nutrition does not seem to be a problem for this population, and we have had several females that have exceeded 200 pounds.  Female bears tend to be older than males – likely a function of the wider movements of males and their tendency to encounter highways and people more often.  As elsewhere, males are larger than females.  A large male will exceed 400 pounds whereas most females do not exceed 200 pounds.  Of more interest and concern is how and if the population will continue to grow and colonize vacant range.  Right now, most resident adults live along Pine Mountain, with home ranges that follow the topography of this distinct geological formation.  We believe that there is lots of good habitat to the west, but few if any females live west of Pine Mountain.  Will a black bear population once again inhabit the forests of the Daniel Boone National Forest?  Only time will tell.  Ongoing studies will seek to understand the influence of roads, towns, mining, and other human activities on the westward expansion of the Kentucky black bear.

In the meantime, our research operates throughout the year; tracking collared animals by aircraft, downloading GPS data via satellite, visiting maternal dens during the winter, and capturing bears throughout the summer so that we can continue to learn about this fascinating instance of recolonization. 

Key collaborators:

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Our study animals, the researchers and the landscape - click for larger image.

4 cubs of F3

A. Schuhmann records data

Maehr & Cox with M30

Cub of F39

Cubs of F6

D. Unger measures a den

D. Unger in F39's den

D. Unger with F37's cub

F1 and 3 cubs in den

F1 and cubs

F1's hidden cub

F37 rock den

J. Guthrie at M30's den

J. Cox keeps cubs warm

L. Patton enters den of F3

M46 near winter den

New GPS collar for F1

Recollaring M30

Bear habitat

Forest canopy

Cumberland Gap

Cumberland Plateau

US 119 from F39's den


Winter den search

Pine Mountain

Red Eft


Ovenbird on nest

Black and Pine Mountains

Pine Mt bear habitat

Hensley settlement

J. Larkin & blighted chestnut

Oak-hickory forest


Gray treefrog

Hardwood forest

Forest in fog

Forest mushrooms

Forest trail

Yellow lady slipper

Natural Arch

Cumberlannd den site

Defeated Creek den habitat

Defeated Creek male den

Den habitat

Summer landscape

Winter landscape

Cumberland Plateau