UGA researchers have received $701,000 in state grants to study the black bear population in middle Georgia—of particular concern in light of plans to widen a 15-mile stretch of road through a portion of the animal’s habitat.
The joint project, headed by scientists in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, will focus on evaluating the effects of widening state Route 96 on bear movements while also estimating the size of the population in several counties, assessing their survival rates and studying their reproductive patterns.
The Georgia Wildlife Resources Division through the Wildlife Restoration Program has committed $324,000, and the Georgia Department of Transportation is funding the research at $377,000. The joint project is expected to take three years. Michael Chamberlain, Karl Miller and Robert Warren, wildlife researchers at the Warnell School, will be conducting the study with graduate students Mike Hooker and Josh Sylvest.
As part of the research, black bears will be trapped, tagged for radio-telemetry tracking and identified by their DNA using hair samples, and their dens will be monitored.
“The bear population in middle Georgia is among the most isolated populations in the southeastern U.S., so it is particularly susceptible to changes in land use and human activities,” Chamberlain said. “To ensure sustainable management of this bear population, it is critical to keep tabs on patterns of survival and reproduction and to assess how environmental factors influence this sustainability.”
The black bear population in the U.S. is very fragmented, he said, and the area it once occupied is now 90 percent uninhabitable to bears. Most populations are found on public land.
Georgia has three distinct black bear populations: in the Appalachian Mountains, near the Ocmulgee River drainage system and near the Okefenokee Swamp. The Ocmulgee population numbers about 300 bears, although an earlier estimate put that figure at 200. The Warnell School researchers plan to conduct another population estimate on black bears within the Ocmulgee River region, including private land in Twiggs, Houston, Bibb, Bleckley and Pulaski counties. They also plan to assess the survival rates and the reproductive ecology by studying den selection, cub production and cub survival.
Researchers also are investigating ways to minimize potential effects of the widening of state Route 96. This 15-mile section will be expanded from two lanes to a four-lane connection between Interstate 16 and I-75, passing through the smallest habitat for black bears in the state. Between 2003 and 2009, 10 of the 20 confirmed black bears killed by collisions with vehicles were along this stretch of road.
The team plans to track the bears to determine their movements, particularly around the roadway corridor. Upon concluding this evaluation, the team will present the Georgia DOT with suggestions on wildlife corridors, underpass locations and recommendations of where to place fences that would funnel the bears to safer crossing locations.
Following the completion of this study and the construction of the underpasses, a proposed second phase of this project will assess the effectiveness of the underpasses allowing the bears to safely cross the roadway.