In metro Atlanta, that bear out there may be a year-round neighbor
One ursine in particular became a local celebrity, sighted by police and residents in August in Sandy Springs, Dunwoody, Johns Creek and unincorporated Fulton County near Roswell.Authorities speculated the bear had wandered in from the west, following the Chattahoochee River upstream. Eventually, they said, the animal would return to its home territory in the mountains. Maybe he did; sightings fell off after the first week in September. And maybe he didn't.
DNR estimates that Georgia is home to at least 5,100 bears. About 4,000 live in North Georgia, up from roughly 1,200 four to five years ago, Hammond said. Researchers say the animals are expanding nationwide, and have shown up in such other areas as Birmingham and Tulsa, Okla. Locally, they've been sighted across the northern tier of suburbs, in such counties as Cobb, Cherokee, Fulton, DeKalb and Gwinnett. "If you're somewhere around Canton or the north side of Atlanta, you're more likely to have bears than the south side [of the region]," Hammond said. "But there's really nowhere in the state where I would be surprised to see a bear."
Why the boom in bruins? No one knows for certain, but it's possibly because the animals aren't as widely hunted as they once were. There was bear poaching, and many property owners considered the animals varmints and shot them whenever they encountered them, but both forms of killing have declined. The animals can be taken legally in Georgia during bear season, but legal hunting hasn't kept pace.
So, rapid population growth is putting pressure on young male bears. Kicked out of their dens in their second year by their mothers, and possibly pushed out of the North Georgia mountains by older dominant males, youngsters may be seeking new territory to the south.And to a bear, the Atlanta area is a big all-you-can-eat buffet of bird seed, pet food and garbage."That's one of the biggest problems with bears in metro area," Hammond said. "If we get a bear in the mountains getting into someone's trash … usually we can deal with it by getting residents to remove food sources.""But in the metro area, with people and pets and houses and bird feeders, there's just so much there, it's just an endless supply of food."
So how can people tell if there's a bear out there taking up permanent residence? "This time of the year, if there are bears hanging out in the metro area, chances are they live there," Hammond said. Another tip-off, he said, would be a known den site -- none have been reported yet in the metro area -- "or if people see sows (female bears) with cubs in the spring."
There has never been an unprovoked bear attack on a human in Georgia. But danger could arise if bears become accustomed to humans supplying them with food. "The best thing people can do is just basically allow the bear to remain wild," Hammond said. "Don't do anything to tame the bears. Don't feed the bears on purpose. Don't allow the bears to continually get into your garbage or bird feeders."
"Bears have an innate fear of people, but over time with food, they can loose that fear, and that's not a good thing for the bear or for people. You just need to respect them and give them their space."
More information about black bears in Georgia is available at the Department of Natural Resources website.