Sunday, June 27, 2004

Bears back in old home: Kentucky

Forests have grown again, regulations limit hunting; nature takes its course

By Steve Vantreese
fFor The Associated Press;
And and Jim Hannah
Enquirer staff writer

Black bears are reoccupying suitable habitat in Kentucky, increasing in numbers, and they're not going away.

"Ten years from now it will be like we've always had them," said Jonathan Day, forest systems coordinator and bear biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

Wildlife experts don't know the extent of Kentucky's resident bear population, but it's apparently on the rise, with bear observations becoming routine in some areas and occasional over a wide swath of eastern Kentucky.

And there has even been a confirmed report of a black bear in Northern Kentucky. Fish and wildlife officials in Frankfort confirmed Friday that fur recovered from a collision in Florence came from a bear.

"That was the evidence we needed to authenticate several black bear sightings in Boone County," said Mark Marraccini, spokesman for the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

He had initially doubted a claim from a Florence woman who reported to sheriff's deputies June 1 that she hit a black bear on Weaver Road near Interstate 71/75, a highly industrialized area of Boone County.

By the time officials responded to the scene of the wreck the bear had wandered off. Searchers, some with night-vision goggles, converged on the area but found no trace of the bear. The driver told police the animal was on the road for a minute or so and then staggered off.

Edward Spevak of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden had speculated at the time the bear traveled to the area this spring to eat cicadas.

"We don't have an estimate of the numbers in the state," Day said. "They're difficult to survey because they tend to be so secretive."

Day said field study that should produce the first modern assessment of black bear numbers is now under way.

Day believes bears - natives extirpated by unregulated shooting and clearing of forests generations ago - are moving toward eventual recolonization of the land that will still support them.

"I think that bears eventually are going to occupy most of eastern Kentucky, a lot of which is heavily forested and rural good habitat for bears," Day said. "I think they'll basically be limited to the part of the state east of I-75."

Day said the central Bluegrass region doesn't make suitable bear habitat, although some sections of western Kentucky aren't out of the question for bear territory.

Marraccini said there had been no confirmed sighting of black bears in Northern Kentucky in recent memory. He speculates the bear hit by a car was a pet that got loose. Sheriff's deputies and county animal control officials say they have not received any reports of bear sightings the last few weeks.

"If it was a pet, maybe the owners found it," Marraccini said. "Your guess is as good as mine on how it got to Boone County and where it might have gone."

"Parts of the west are pretty good bear habitat, Peabody (Wildlife Management Area), the Pennyrile Forest (WMA), some of the swamp lands in far western Kentucky - but how are they going to get there?" he said.

"Some single bears may go west. Individual males may take off and go incredible distances, but it takes more to get populations recolonized. The Bluegrass region probably will be a barrier to more westward movement."

There have been a few bear reports from south-central Kentucky from counties near the Big South Fork National Recreation Area, the Tennessee portion of which has a small re-established core population of black bears, he said.

Day said bears thus far have significantly occupied "the first couple lines of counties" along the state's eastern borders through all-natural behavior. That is, bears have not been imported and released.

"It's been through bears moving in from Virginia and West Virginia and even some from Tennessee," Day said. "And we've been getting good reproduction from the bears already here."

The biggest challenge with the bruins back in Kentucky may be keeping the peace the between humans and bears.

"We need to alter some behavior to prevent conflicts, and since we can't explain it to the bears, we're trying to educate the people," Day said.

"The biggest thing is not to provide a free meal to a bear," Day said. "Don't throw out garbage and don't put out garbage in cans until the day it's going to be picked up. Don't leava pet food outside. Keep your barbecue grill clean."

In recent weeks, there have been instances of bears being shot by residents in eastern Kentucky counties. Without knowing details of the incidents, Day said it is unusual to have circumstances that would lead to the necessity of shooting unless bears have become conditioned to feeding near homes.

Bears are protected in Kentucky and may not be hunted, although shooting in instances may be permitted - not prosecuted, that is - to prevent property damage or if a bear poses a genuine threat.

"It's incredibly rare for black bears to be aggressive," Day said. "They're usually secretive and prefer to be left alone."

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