Black bears roamed freely through the mountains of Kentucky and surrounding states before man began to harvest them for their furs. A vast population of black bears in the 1700s was reduced to almost nonexistence by the mid-1900s due to overharvesting and habitat changes brought on by timbering and mining in the area.
"Napoleon's army was reported to wear winter hats made from the fur of imported Kentucky black bear," said Kingdom Come State Park Manager Rick Fuller. "The historical records of big game harvesting in Kentucky show greater numbers of bears being killed than even white-tailed deer at that time."
However, black bears were never totally eradicated in Kentucky. Photographs from family collections along with many oral histories from the region prove that the bears still roamed the Kentucky mountains, although they were rarely seen.
Harlan County is the bridgehead between Virginia and Kentucky for bears to move in and out of the state. During the decades of the bears' diminished habitation in Kentucky, there is no proof of a breeding population remaining in the area. Bears that were sighted may have been males roaming the area in search of food or female bears. A male bear's range during mating season may cover hundreds of square miles.
In the last five years, more and more proof has been gathered that not only are black bears roaming in and out of the area, but a breeding population of females and cubs has been reestablished. In 2000, there was documentation of only one female with cubs in this area. In 2001, there were still only two documented. In 2002 there were ten. Since then the numbers documented have grown in leaps and bounds.
Wes Hodges, the private lands wildlife biologist of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, said in a recent interview, "My responsibilities take me to a 10-county area in southeastern Kentucky. I have personally helped process approximately 50 to 60 bears and have seen too many to count."
His responsibilities also include working with song birds and elk, and helping private land owners develop wildlife habitats on their own land. He may be required to take action when he receives calls about nuisance bears from the police, local residents in his 10-county area or calls directed to him from the Frankfort dispatcher.
When asked why he chose such a diverse and demanding job, Hodges said, "My first degree from Eastern Kentucky University was in industrial technology with a minor in computer electronics. I even went on to get a drafting degree from Kentucky Technical College. But my parents encouraged me to do something in life that would truly make me happy. That's when I went back to EKU to get another degree in wildlife management. I was a child who was happiest when I learned by listening and doing. As an adult, I am still the same. I think we all do our best work when that work is something we love."
The enthusiasm in Wes Hodges' voice when he talks about black bears is evidence of his love and commitment to his job. "I especially enjoy the research and documentation of bears. In the beginning, most of the bears processed were nuisance bears, but as the study enlarged and we began to work with the University of Kentucky in the research, other bears were processed purely for the sake of study."
A "nuisance" bear is one that has become too familiar with human residence areas or specific areas frequently visited by humans, such as Kingdom Come Park. The first phase of dealing with such a bear is hazing. This may include spotlighting, loud noises such as vehicle horn blasts, shooting off a firecracker gun directly over the bear, or using rubber bullets to sting the bear. Often, these simple techniques frighten bears back into the wild.
When a bear is "processed," this includes taking the bear temporarily into captivity, sedating the bear, drawing blood samples, pulling a tooth, tattooing the inside of the bear's lip, measuring and weighing, tagging and/or collaring, and attaching a tracking device. The bear is unharmed by this experience, but when it is released back into the wild, the bear will hopefully associate this negative experience with humans and maintain a safe distance in the future.
"I am encouraged by the number of bears I have encountered in the wild that have been processed four or five years earlier and have never been heard from or noted again as "nuisance" bears.This shows that they return to the wild and live successfully there," said Hodges.
"All tagged or monitored bears, however, are not nuisance bears. Our study includes many bears. The information we are gathering about them through the use of technology such as GPA tracking devices includes: population, natural habitat, range, life span, dens, breeding, births, size and so on. We can locate an individual bear that has been appropriately processed whether it is alive or dead."
The largest recorded bear in Kentucky in recent years was caught near Little Shepherd Trail. The bear weighed in at well over 500 pounds.
"Bears are wanderers," he said. They roam in search of food or, in the mating season, in search of other bears. In our area, even in winter, some bears will get up, roam about and go back to their den."
A big concern for people living in bear country is personal safety.
"You never know about an individual bear's behavior," said Hodges, "but basically, they are shy, non-threatening creatures. If they see you, they will warn you of their presence. The best advice is to be still and let the bear leave peacefully. If the bear comes closer, make all the noise you can, jump up and down, try to look bigger than you are by flapping a shirt, etc. This is usually all it takes to encourage the bear to retreat."
"They don't go looking for humans, but they are constantly looking for food. A danger does develop when a bear begins to associate food with humans. This is why it is not only illegal but foolhardy for people to try to feed bears, attract bears with food, or bait bears. A bear will return to the place where it has easily gotten food. For example, if you have a bear coming to your house, simply bear-proof your trash cans, put away pet food or bird seed and this will most likely solve the problem after a few attempts by the bear when it discovers the food source is gone."
There have been no reports in the entire state of Kentucky of savage or marauding bears. The natural diet of bears includes berries and fruits of all kinds that grow naturally, wild plants, nuts, acorns, small animals and even animals as large as elk. The food source for bears in Kentucky is diverse and rich. Bears have no natural predators, although male bears have been noted to kill younger bears and cubs.
The cities of Cumberland, Benham and Lynch are successfully "bear-proofing" their communities with bear trash cans and dumpsters that are secure. They are building and purchasing bear-proof cans and applying for grants that help bear-proof their communities.
"When you live in bear country, bears will pass through. But without available food, they will not stay," Hodges said.