A new survey by the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources shows that Middle Georgia residents overwhelmingly support efforts to conserve black bears in their part of the state.
The results are a good indicator of how the public will react to efforts to manage the black bear population in four Middle Georgia counties, said Craig Miller, the assistant professor at the Warnell School who led a survey of 4,000 residents in Bleckley, Houston, Pulaski and Twiggs counties.
The survey will be used by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources as it develops a management program for black bears. A separate, similar study for the entire state of Florida was conducted, as well, and the final report is pending, Miller said.
Miller said researchers did not anticipate the answers they received. “We were surprised at the high level of support from people in both Georgia and Florida for black bears and black bear conservation,” he said.
Residents in other southern states have expressed more negative views of the animals, Miller said. “One thing we found in further analysis is that when people saw bears and had contact with bears, they had more support for black bear conservation,” he explained.
Miller and Warnell graduate student Joshua Agee conducted the survey over several months this year. Of the 4,000 surveys mailed to residents in those four counties, 1,227 sent back usable results. Findings include:
Sixty-one percent of the respondents support releasing black bears into a sustainable habitat currently void of bears.
Twenty-one percent had seen a black bear in their county between February 2007 and February 2008, with most of those sightings from the animal crossing the road.
Eight percent of respondents had received information about black bears, suggesting that residents have little knowledge about the animals. Researchers found in the study that the high awareness of black bears coupled with a lack of information shows the need for improving educational materials to the public.
More than half the respondents—60 percent—were not concerned about any property damage bears might cause, although 69 percent said they would want a bear trapped and relocated if it tried to enter their homes.
Most of the respondents—82 percent—said seeing wildlife during their daily routine is a positive experience.
According to Miller, bears are located in three distinct areas of Georgia: North Georgia, generally north of Interstate-85; those four counties in Middle Georgia; and in South Georgia around the lower part of the Flint River near the Florida border. Bear populations across the Eastern U.S. are up overall, Miller said. But that means that they are now showing up in areas from which they have been absent for decades, including urban areas.
That’s why it’s important to educate the public about bears and their behaviors, according to Miller. Miller also said “black bears are easily frightened. Slamming doors will easily scare them away from yards. People just shouldn’t feed them because they can get habituated. Changing human behavior is the easiest way to deal with problem bears.”
Bobby Bond, a senior wildlife biologist with the DNR, said his agency is waiting for results from other Warnell studies before devising a management strategy to be overseen by Michael Conroy, adjunct wildlife professor. The two-part research, conducted by two graduate students, involved putting radio collars on bears to track them and their habitats. The second part involved estimating the population size.
Bond said before the DNR can implement any management plan, it was important to not only learn about public perception of black bears, but also how many there are and whether they are a nuisance.
“This Middle Georgia bear population is the one that’s gone under the radar a bit,” Bond said. “The one in North Georgia has been managed, and the one in South Georgia has been managed.”
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