Below are tips on what you should do if you encounter a black bear and how to avoid attracting one to your property.
› Do not run from the bear.
› Avoid direct eye contact with the bear.
› Encourage the bear to move away by waving your arms and yelling as you slowly back away.
› Make sure the bear has an unobstructed direction to escape.
› In the unlikely event of an attack, fight back. Never “play dead.”
› Never approach or purposely feed a bear.
› Store all food indoors or in a bear-resistant container.
› Do not leave pet food outside overnight.
› Keep trash cans clean and don’t put trash out until the morning of pick up.
› Avoid feeding birds and other wildlife from April to January when bears are most active.
Source: Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Wildlife officials say black bears have been sighted this year in counties all across North Alabama, evidence the furry beast is expanding its range in the Yellowhammer State.
Jackson, Limestone, Marshall, Morgan and St. Clair counties are now on the growing list of black bear sightings this year, according to a statement issued Tuesday by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
State biologists say the increase in sightings may be due to factors including changes in bear distribution, habitat fragmentation, seasonal movement and the summer mating season. However, most spring and summer bear sightings involve young males being pushed out on their own by their mothers and adult males, officials said.
Historically in Alabama, a small population of black bears has long existed in Mobile and Washington counties in the south end of the state, officials said. Baldwin, Covington and Escambia counties on the Florida border host another population of bears.
In Northeast Alabama near Chattanooga, bears migrating from Northwest Georgia have established a small but viable population, officials said. The two populations are genetically different, though their appearance is very similar.
"While seeing a black bear in Alabama is uncommon and exciting, it is no cause for alarm," state Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries conservation outreach specialist Marianne Hudson said. "There has never been a black bear attack on a human" in Alabama.
"If you are lucky enough to see a bear, simply leave it alone," Hudson said.
Wildlife officials in Tennessee and Georgia — where the bears have remained established in the Appalachians — also say black bear sightings and encounters with humans have been increasing, and the bears' range has been widening compared with past years. Officials have campaigned hard this year to warn residents what not to do when it comes to black bears.
In Alabama, the black bear is a species of highest conservation concern with no open hunting season. Shooting at one is a class A misdemeanor, officials said. Other penalties for shooting at a black bear include the loss of hunting and fishing license privileges for three years and possible jail time.
In 2012, sightings in DeKalb County's Little River Canyon National Preserve triggered an Auburn University study seeking real data on bear populations. At that time, sightings included a 230-pound male bear that was killed by a car in 2011 on Alabama Highway 35, following by another on Alabama Highway 9 between Centre and Piedmont in May 2012.
The 2012 study looked at the bear population and genetics in the 14,000-acre preserve between Fort Payne and the Alabama-Georgia state line, according to Alabama Resources Management officials.
Experts in 2012 believed there were a dozen or fewer black bears in the preserve, but the Associated Press in November 2014 reported that the research showed the national preserve had become home to 26 black bears for at least the prior two years.
The Little River black bear population is believed to be the largest in the state. Smaller numbers can be found in the Saraland area, the AP reported.
Thanks to grant funding from the National Park Service, Little River Canyon is installing game cameras and bear-hair snares. The Auburn researchers will collect the images and samples, eventually sending the hair to the University of Idaho for genetic analysis.
Those who have seen a bear in their neighborhood, on their property or crossing a road are encouraged to report the sighting to their local Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries District Office. This information helps biologists document black bear movement and distribution.
For bear sightings by residents of Cherokee, DeKalb and Jackson counties, call the District 2 Office in Jacksonville at 256-435-5422.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.