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POSTED: July 7, 2010 9:44 a.m.
Urban naturalists can’t believe our environment is improving and wildlife is recovering because they can’t see beyond the skyline. They read mostly about wild species in danger. For most wildlife, it is not true — certainly not for that emblem of nature, the black bear.
 Dr. Charles Wharton, one of Georgia’s best-known ecologists wrote, “The bear is a symbol of the health of the environment in the Southern Appalachians. If the bear can survive in an area, it’s balanced and biologically diverse.”
Let’s examine this environmental bellwether.
The number of bears was estimated to be only 208 in 1937 by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Wildlife experts were not optimistic about recovery of Georgia bears in the mid-20th century. Professor Jim Jenkins, a wildlife expert, estimated in the 1950s that 650 lived in the state and that 500 of those were in the Okefenokee Swamp. So, only about 150 lived outside the Okefenokee.
Jenkins didn’t believe bears would completely disappear because of wildlife preserves in the state, but he concluded that, “… the development of bear hunting as a sport in Georgia appears remote.”
This pessimism continued late in the century.
In 1989 the Atlanta Journal-Constitution quoted a North Carolina expert, “The black bear population will decline dramatically over the coming years.”
The opposite has happened. Evidence of the bear’s prosperity blooms every year, as it has recently. Sightings around Atlanta have been increasing for more than a decade. Many news reports pooh-pooh the significance of bear sightings and try to twist them to show human fault.
 A 2006 news article explained “… human populations are growing and expanding, turning wild places traditionally inhabited by bears into subdivisions and horse farms. Bears are losing ground.”
Not so. Bears have been gaining ground for over a half-century and still are. Today, more than 1,000 live in North Georgia. There were about 2,500 in the state in 2006 according to DNR. A near linear increase has occurred since the 1930s.
Georgia hunters killed more than 300 bears last year. That’s more than existed in the state in the 1930s. With the improved environment, it’s not too surprising. Half of Georgia’s counties have fewer people per square mile than Maine and 62 counties are over 70 percent forest.
Georgia is not alone; the bear population is increasing all over the country. Maine hunters killed an average of 3,800 bears per year from 2000-2003, compared to about 1,400 in the early 1980s. Bear populations have more than quadrupled since the 1950s in Maine and Michigan.
A North Carolina State University publication says, “The bruin’s phenomenal return in the Tar Heel State seems matched only by our deer re-invasion.”
Their numbers jumped from about 4,000 to 11,000 in the last 30 years.
Florida’s bear population in the 1970s was estimated at “less than 300 bears”; in 1998 it was “between 1,282 and 1,888.” Hunters in Pennsylvania killed more than 3,100 bears in 2006. Connecticut, a state that many consider a suburb of New York City, reports about 2,000 black bear sightings a year.
New Jersey, wrote a “Black Bear Management Plan” in 1997 and concluded, “Continual fragmentation of habitat and the projected growth of the human population has made it untenable to continue maintaining a black bear population at its present level (450-550).”
They suggested it be reduced and maintained at 272-340. The first hunting season in thirty years was held in 2003; over 300 bears were killed and the population was estimated to be 1,777.
This growth is phenomenal, despite an incredible lack of certainty at the end of the 20th century about numbers in most states.
Colorado wildlife specialists gave a typical assessment, “Although we do not know exactly how many black bears live in Colorado, population estimates range from 8,000 to 12,000 bears.”
A research proposal in Kentucky admitted, “There is some evidence of a breeding population; however, little else is known about the existing bear population in Kentucky.”
A Mississippi report is even more surprising, “The number of black bears residing in Mississippi is anyone’s guess, but most biologists tend to agree that it ranges between 20-50 bears.”
We claim to know the number of endangered species on the other side of the earth, but can’t count our bears. This vagueness about numbers might be understandable about salamanders or armadillos, but not about such a conspicuous and well loved icon of nature.
Although love for bears is common, they are loved more from a distance than close up. Seventy-seven percent of respondents in a Maryland survey supported having bears in the state, but only 52 percent wanted bears in their county. The bear now survives and thrives in much of Georgia and the rest of the United States. Whether they are loved at long range or cursed in campsites and garbage cans, their recovery and prosperity is a sign of environmental progress that ought to be celebrated.

University of Georgia Professor Brown is an adjunct scholar with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of “The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century.” The Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.
 

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