By Tom Eisenhart
Brad Young's job revolves around donuts. At least, it sometimes seems that way for the Black Bear Program Leader of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP).
Yet as a way to help track Mississippi's growing black bear population, donuts play an important role in his duties. When it comes to attracting and trapping black bears, donuts are irresistible.
I'm standing in a humid palmetto thicket watching Brad tie a plastic grocery bag of donuts to a metal line that hangs at about eye level. We're in the heart of Mississippi's Delta National Forest, more than 60,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forest near the Mississippi River and a town called Rolling Fork.
Brad is performing a ritual he repeats several times a day. After hanging the bag, he takes his pocket knife and pokes it with several holes. Grabbing a bottle of wild hog attractant bait — a sweet-smelling, gooey, pink substance — he pours some on the bag and then sprays the surrounding foliage. Bears may have poor eyesight, but their ultra-sensitive snouts can detect the "heavenly" aroma of donuts and wild hog attractant bait from far away.
This is one of several bait sites placed every half mile along a road through the national forest. The target for these bait sites is a bear designated 'EO5-0.' The batteries in the GPS collar used to track EO5-0 are dying and need to be replaced. Once EO5-0 hits a bait site a few times, Brad and his colleagues will set a snare to capture the bear on its next visit.
"The whole operation comes to a stop without donuts," Brad jokes. Fortunately, donut shop owners are happy to unload their day-old leftovers when he drops by.
The bait set and the mosquitoes now unbearable, we quickly climb out of the brush and back into Brad's pickup. Driving farther down the road, he points out several telephone poles where bears have left rough scratches to mark their territory. He climbs out and inspects a set of marks a few feet above his head. Bears also use the poles to scratch their backsides, which he promptly demonstrates to our crew's amusement.
We won't be lucky enough to spot a bear today. But thanks to the GPS collars, researchers from MDWFP and Mississippi State University can pinpoint the whereabouts of black bears throughout the state. Using GPS data, they can track where bears roam, how fast they move and what their preferred foods are at different times of the year. It's a collaborative effort to better manage the bear population as it grows.
And grow it has. When the Black Bear Program was launched in 2002, an estimated 25 to 40 bears roamed Mississippi. The population now stands between 100 and 120, a number Brad says is probably fairly conservative.
"Year after year, we're seeing an increase in the number of sightings and are finding that bears are becoming more dispersed across the state," he says. While encouraging, the American black bear remains state endangered in Mississippi; the Louisiana black bear, a subspecies, is federally threatened.
There are a couple of reasons why Mississippi's bear population has more than tripled in less than 10 years. First, over the past few years, an increasing number of female bears have moved into Mississippi, reproducing and rearing cubs.
Second, the animals have more bear-friendly habitat to roam, thanks to the enrollment of cotton and soybean fields into the USDA's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Wetland Reserve Program (WRP). As those lands have been restored to bottomland forests, more corridors have been established between natural areas such as the Delta National Forest that had essentially become islands.
The 2008 launch of a new CRP practice called the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) Program has been important, as well. SAFE enables private landowners to create habitat specifically for the needs of black bears. Funding for the program was awarded in response to a proposal by The Nature Conservancy and the BEaR Education & Restoration Group of Mississippi.
Having seen a few bear crossing signs earlier in the day, I wonder about bear-human conflicts. Brad says that hasn't been an issue because, currently, there's enough room for the existing population to roam and forage. He foresees a day, however, when it could become a problem, which is why he says it's important to continue to provide more bottomland forest habitat.
Rather than fearing their growing numbers, residents in communities like nearby Rolling Fork are proud of the comeback in Mississippi bears, which Brad finds heartening.
"Bears have reclaimed their spot in Mississippi, and it's something people have been excited to see."September 15, 2011