BONAIRE, Ga. — Mike Hooker has trapped a bear or two – or 200 – before.
Last year, he was in Montana trapping grizzlies. The doctoral student estimates that in the past 19 years, he’s handled “many hundreds” of black bears to attach tracking collars and conduct research in Louisiana, Arkansas and elsewhere.
But for the next few years, he’ll be working with possibly the smallest population he’s ever researched: Middle Georgia’s black bears. Scientists, road planners and wildlife managers hope to learn more about the bears in the course of a three-year University of Georgia study that began recently.
The smallest of Georgia’s three bear populations, they rove across two small wildlife management areas – Oaky Woods in Houston County and Ocmulgee in Twiggs, Pulaski and Bleckley counties – as well as other public and private land nearby. But no one knows exactly how far they travel, how many there are or how much the population is growing.
“We understand very little about this (bear) population, especially compared to others in the South,” said Michael Chamberlain, one of the lead UGA researchers.
That became more important last year, when the first-ever open hunt of Middle Georgia bears was held on private land in Houston, Bibb and Twiggs counties. When 34 bears, half of them females, were killed in a single day near Tarversville, it stirred controversy among wildlife advocates.
The Georgia Department of Transportation and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources have provided a combined $700,000 in grants to fund a two-pronged study. It will examine bear movements around a 15-mile corridor of Ga. 96 that is being widened to four lanes, and it will better estimate the total bear population and find out more about cub birth and survival rates.
The road project includes underpasses to funnel bears underneath the highway, which bisects their habitat. The study will help DOT position those corridors in the most effective places to prevent cars from hitting bears, potentially harming both.
One day last week, Hooker pulled his truck off Ga. 96, grabbed a bucket full of tools and a spool of barbed wire and scrambled down a bank into the woods.
His mouth full of nails, Hooker passed a surveyor’s stake marking where the highway would soon broaden, then headed farther into black gumbo clay beneath mossy cypress trees.
He found three trees about a dozen feet apart and began wrapping barbed wire around them in two evenly spaced strands. Then he laced some string above, to be baited later.
This wouldn’t make much of a bear pen, but it would catch something the bears have that he wants: hair. They’d visit for a little sour corn snack, step through or over the barbed wire and leave a few strands behind.
Hairs with the roots still attached can be tested to show all kinds of genetic information. And when thousands of these results are put together, they also help scientists understand how many bears live in the area.
This dark, boggy spot probably isn’t a favorite bear hangout.
“If (I were) a bear, I wouldn’t go there,” Oaky Woods manager Raye Jones had declared earlier that morning as he described how high the water gets.
But it’s near an underpass where bears might cross beneath the existing Ga. 96. Under the bridge’s concrete pilings, ponds of mud are surrounded by hog, deer, raccoon and opossum tracks. Hooker checked for bear tracks without finding any, but he has found bobcat and coyote tracks and even an alligator under other bridges.
Biting the pole
Hooker has plenty of experience looking for bear signs. Driving through Oaky Woods, he noticed telephone poles that looked as if they’d been peeled about 6 feet off the ground. He pulled off and found bear fur clinging to the splinters.
“The bears like to rub their backs against telephone poles or trees, then lean back over their shoulder and bite the pole,” he said, laughing.
Soon, Hooker will know more about the bears’ highway crossing habits, too. Bears will be trapped and fitted with GPS-equipped collars that can text their location as often as every five minutes.
The goal is to collar about 40 bears. Half will have GPS collars, and the other half radio collars fitted to female bears. One graduate student will focus exclusively on finding the female’s dens and how many of their cubs survive, Chamberlain said.
But before the field work can begin, the researchers must visit with the bears’ neighbors. The morning had started off with a strategy session, as three graduate students huddled over a map split into a rainbow of colors showing land ownership.
Jones jabbed his finger at the map and rattled off which owners and hunters -- including former Gov. Sonny Perdue -- would allow access for bear trapping or hair snares after turkey season. Then Jones and two of the students left to meet with Charles Ayer, one of a group of developers who owns a portion of what was once Oaky Woods, to work out access to some land bordering Ga. 247, now leased to hunting clubs.
Chamberlain said a few weeks ago that neighboring landowners have been very open and cooperative.
The University of Georgia conducted a previous five-year bear study in the 1990s, which focused mostly on bear genetics and population. This study will use that one as a jumping-off point, but it will also focus more on bear movements and reproduction.
“One of the two biggest things we’re missing that we’ll get from this study is an overall population estimate,” said Bobby Bond, a senior wildlife biologist and specialist on Middle Georgia’s bears for the DNR.
The previous study gave some seasonal population estimates for each year, but not the total population size, he said. The DNR has basically used “at least 300” bears as “a safe guess,” which UGA researchers agreed was reasonable, Bond said.
Aside from the population number, Bond said birth and survival information is especially important for a population that is going to be hunted.
Chamberlain said, “The most obvious thing we will provide the DNR will be a (bear) harvest rate for next year,” which is the next time the state will revisit its rules for hunting the midstate bears.
Analysis of the hair snares should provide a better estimate of the number of female bears in the Middle Georgia population as early as this fall, he said.
During the study, UGA researchers may be able to learn more about how the small size of the Middle Georgia bear population could affect its survival. Small populations have less genetic variation and can be more susceptible to declines in breeding or litter sizes, Chamberlain said.
“Isolated populations are also much more susceptible to a catastrophic change,” he said.
Chamberlain said the trapping and collaring will continue at least three years, and the DOT might fund a second phase of two or three years to track bear movements through the Ga. 96 underpasses.