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The bear facts - Kentucky bruins restoring themselves, unlikely to come far west

By Steve Vantreese

Kentucky's black bear population apparently is coming on strong â “ a development that's surprised wildlife managers as much as anybody.

Not only do bears call Kentucky home now, enough of them live in the state to support bear hunting seasons. Modern Kentucky hunters are taking bears after a 150-year void â “ only this time the population isn't being wiped out.

Just don't hold your breath for black bears to set up shop here in western Kentucky. That most likely cannot happen.

The re-establishment of bears in Kentucky is exclusively a program that was undertaken by the bears themselves. None has been imported or stocked in a man-made effort to bring them back. It wasn't man's idea.

Bears seemingly are thriving from reproductive efforts of animals that moved into Kentucky from neighboring states that never completely lost their bear populations, chiefly Virginia and Tennessee. Alas, the original Kentucky bear population was rubbed out somewhere in the middle of the 19th century by uncontrolled hunting as habitat was being degraded and eliminated.

The modern Kentucky bear population is expanded enough to support tightly controlled hunting, and that for the recent 2013 seasons allowed hunting in 16 eastern Kentucky counties (increased from just four the year before).

Modest but expanded bear harvest limits produced new highs for hunters. Both an archery/crossbow season and a firearms season filled 10-bear quotas. The two seasons gave the state a total of 20 bears taken during 2013.

Nobody has a real handle on the total number of bears in Kentucky, but three years of research is closing in on an extrapolation that soon should provide biologists with a raw estimation with which to work. What is known is that Kentucky resident bear numbers and the geographic area they occupy are both on the increase.

Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources biologist Steven Dobey, heading black bear management, said it's all about the right kind of habitat having re-establishing itself and fertile female bears moving back into it.

"Male bears are sort of dime a dozen â “ they can take off and wander, showing up almost anywhere. Their home range can be huge," Dobey said.

Males often wander far, to places where bears are not known as residents, places less than ideal bear habitat. But they typically don't remain there. Male bears don't colonize new turf.

"But the female's home range is much smaller. Your bear population is really where the female establishes herself," Dobey said. "When a female gives birth, a female cub from the litter usually grows up to establish a territory that's adjoining but overlapping."

In this fashion, females stretch the geographic area of bear occupation generation by generation, young lady bruins taking range expanding steps. Meanwhile, young males take off for who knows where, bouncing around but swinging back to genuine bear country (where the girls live) when it's mating time.

The rounders taken by males usually account for bear sightings in areas where they don't really belong. Far western Kentucky has had at least one documented modern black bear visitation when a bruin (identified through a tag it wore) hailing from Arkansas made a swing through the area.

In more recent times there have been reports of the odd bear sighting in the region. Some of those reflect tall tales and coffee shop conclusions â “ but it also is biologically possible that now and then an adventurous, wandering young male bear from an established population could find its way through our neck of the woods.

Presently, southeastern Missouri and eastern Arkansas probably are the areas nearest to western Kentucky with established bear populations. To the east, the Big South Fork region of southeast Kentucky (think as far east as Lexington, but south to near the Tennessee border) is the nearest neighborhood with in-state resident bears.

It's highly unlikely that western Kentucky ever will have resident bears, Dobey said. The bruins require expansive timber and a low density of human population to feel at home. While there are pockets of seemingly adequate habitat in western Kentucky, those are isolated amid plentiful development and human presence.

Dobey said the better black bear habitats are plentiful oak-hickory forest, mountains or coastal swamps. Eastern Kentucky has that covered in large swaths of forested mountain country.

Kentucky's best bear density is found along Pine Mountain (near the state's far eastern border) from Pike County through Letcher and Harlan counties. The next highest concentration is in McCreary and Wayne counties in that Big South Fork habitat, Dobey said.

In years to come, more reports of bear encounters in far western Kentucky's Land Between the Lakes or Clark's River bottoms possibly could surface. Some of that likely will be colorful fiction, but you can't rule out a real bear appearance or two.

If that happens, however, it's almost certain it will be a male bear just passing through â “ maybe on vacation or something.

Meanwhile, Dobey said western Kentuckians with a hankering for bear hunting might consider coming east in future seasons.

"People kind of overlook the fact that bear hunting permits are over the counter in Kentucky â “ you don't have to be drawn to hunt," he said. "And there's lots of public land to hunt on."

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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