BEARS AMONG US near Louisville. Where are they coming from?

With some history-making bear sightings as of late, we had to ask where are the bears coming from?

WHAS11's Doug Proffitt and photographer Chris Bryant tracks black bears that are inching closer to Metro Louisville WHAS

LOUISVILLE (WHAS11) -- Deep into the forest named after Daniel Boone. Down logging roads and forest paths, the famed explorer himself may have roamed this area. It's an area that can be found four hours from downtown Louisville and no GPS is going to guide you here.

Why are we here? With Metro Louisville's surrounding counties and Southern Indiana getting history-making visits from black bears, we wanted to see where most of them are coming from. So WHAS11 News Photographer Chris Bryant spent two days with John Hast, he’s the bear program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife.  

Hast said while the Louisville area has recently seen an increase in bear sightings, an area of Kentucky has found a way to coexist with bears. 

“There’s people in Eastern Kentucky who see bears on a daily basis and we have minimal conflicts. They have found a way to live with bears.”

So WHY are black bears showing up in our area? It's as simple as looking at a map. The whole eastern portion of Kentucky is as green as can be. That green area is the perfect habitat for these bears to thrive.

Adult male bears can reach up to 6 feet tall, weigh up to 500 pounds, and can run 25-30 MPH. The first bear in our story is a female that stands around 5 feet. She can have up to 18 cubs in her lifetime.

Their average lifespan is 18 years in the wild, and males have a territorial range of  150 miles or more. It's easy to see how you could soon be face to face with a full grown black bear. 

Bernheim Forest, 20 minutes south of the Gene Snyder Freeway in Louisville, had a naming contest for the black bear photographed by a visitor. Director Mark Wourms to this day says, “Bernie was great for Bernheim.”

Bernie hasn't been seen again, but Wourms said his impact was enormous. “We were getting calls saying, 'Hey, if I walk this trail, we have 40 miles, If I walk that trail will I see Bernie?'”

That's the very reason Hast and his team are hooking camouflaged cameras to trees. They are also smearing molasses, peanut butter and spreading honey buns around trees. Simple treats to lure in the bears.

Under a canopy of cut trees and brush, they set a snare trap of cable wire. 

“We use a leg snare. Goes around their wrist above their hands and they've got really thick fur so no damage to the animal,” Hast explains.

Ready to capture and track the next black bear that could someday make its way to Kentuckiana.

With his team of biologists, some of whom are in training, Hast is able to set six of these traps all over the forest land. 

He says, “The whole goal is to have them in the snare as short of a time as possible.”

Bears in Kentucky had disappeared around 1900, 80 years after Daniel Boone's death. They only came back in the late 1980s, traveling from nearby states.

With several traps, cell phone trail cams alert the researchers to what's been hit. 

On this day Hast reports, “We've got six set, five of them got hit. It’s either you’re gonna miss ‘em or catch ‘em good.”

So they pour more molasses on a tree. Hast is not leaving empty-handed.

“You’re allowed to miss them on day two, but day three?” Hast says.

Suddenly the camera tells them, they’ve got one! Hast says he’s ready, “So basically I'm going with everything, if we need another dart.”

Two rounds of darts take down the small bear. After a short wait, Hast moves in and tells us, “Aww right. Let’s ease in and quiet this way.  First thing I'm doing, I'm looking, I see my dart. I'm making sure she isn't going to whip my ass. That's a nice little female.”

The bear, about 2 to 3-years-old is out cold. They’ve now got three hours to do their studies. 

“We’re gonna put an ear tag in her and tattoo as well,” Hast said. 

They also pull a tooth. A bear’s tooth determines the correct age, it shows rings like a tree.  The state bear team also measures the paws and ears.

Hast reminds them, they are watching the clock closely. 

“I'm going to take my chances. She ain't going to eat me!” Hast said.

The biologists douse the bear with cold water to cool her down.

A tracking collar is placed around her neck so they can later follow the female bears into their winter dens. This will provide information on bear reproduction. 

“We're really interested in the reproductive outputs of these bears,” Hast said.

The only way to find out? Count for yourself. The bears give birth and hibernate from January to March.

The habitat, history of bears in Kentucky Exclusive to WHAS

Hast and crew go inside the dens to see the newborn cubs as they are nursing. In the den, mother bear is out like a light.

A closeup of three newborn cubs shows amazing baby blue eyes. 

Getting into the dens is why they're able to say about 500 bears are in this area of Kentucky right now, to the point hunting is now allowed.  The state raised the quota to a total of 50 bears to be hunted this year. 

Hast said, “I want to see them thrive. But we are making great strides to reduce the bear that's getting into your garbage can. It’s a fine balance between hunting and mitigating nuisance stuff we have happen every year.”

Information on bear hunting season WHAS

Our journey to track the bears ends with the capture of a male bear. It is about 4-years-old, he weighs 200 pounds. A microchip is placed on him but not a tracking collar.  
Meantime in Metro Louisville, the black bear brings fascination and wonder.

With food sources like the Salt River, the Ohio River, and Floyds Fork through Jefferson County improving, the folks at Bernheim are convinced the bears could follow those rivers, for the next step. 

Mark Wourms is betting on it.

“I think at some point it's likely we'll have a bear spotted in Jefferson County, and that's not a bad thing."

Chris Bryant on tagging bears with the Kentucky Dept. of Fish and Wildlife

Bears have the ability to be one of those creatures that just captures your wonder and interest.

Watching The Wilderness Family movies as a kid I always wanted to have a pet black bear named Sampson. However, my parents quickly shot that dream down because apparently my bedroom was not hibernation approved they said.  However, my interest in these dangerous animals never left me.  I would look for them on family vacations in Colorado and Yellowstone growing up, and it wasn't until I was 31 that I would see one in the wild at Yellowstone 6 years ago (we got lucky and saw five different bears that trip and my wife got to see a moose).

The idea for this story came to me a few years ago after watching North Woods Law, the idea of going along on a tracking, trapping, and tagging trip for black bears seemed like a fun idea.  And, in the business, sometimes we get to do some pretty cool stuff.  So after I found out who I needed to talk to and if they would even allow me to tag along it started bugging management to let me go.  And, when I say bugged, I walked into my News Directors office every day for a week and just said, "Bears!" and walked out.  

This all was a great idea until I realized that I would be getting up at 3:30 a.m. on a Tuesday to drive down to McCreary County to meet up with John Hast with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife.  Hast and his team agreed to allow me to tag along for the start of their research this season.  It is never easy to be embedded into a group of people that you don't know for a period of time like this, they all know each other and here is this camera guy (which with them taking one look at me knew that if attacked by bears, aliens, chupacabras or anything they would only really have to outrun me).  

Bear tracking and trapping research WHAS

Day 1 of the trip started with the checking and setting of traps off the old logging road in the Daniel Boone National Forest, sometimes the bait area would be a few yards off the road and other times it would 100 yards or more off the road.  The caravan to these sites would be the Fish and Wildlife teams along with National Parks Rangers and US Forest Service personnel.  The research project is a joint operation between the agencies.  The data collected not only helps Kentucky understand the migration and breeding of the bears but also give the government agencies the needed information as well on these animals.  

Where Kentucky Fish and Wildlife set bear traps WHAS

Setting up each trap or bait site is a multi-step process that involves some old woodsmen abilities, you have to make the site seem natural after setting the trap, but also have to make sure that the bears are able to be caught.  From setting the leg snare to prepping the ground to look like nothing is there using small trees cut down to sit on each other to make the site look like a "den" takes some time.  It also adds time when you are teaching others how to set these traps as well.  
Setting and checking six sites finally got us a small female bear near the end of the first day.  Hast and his apprentice carefully measured the medications needed to sedate the bear via air gun.  Once the bear was asleep the research and data collection started.  Everything on this female was categorized and marked down.  The size of her paws, the length of her ears, to pulling a tooth, checking to see if she was nursing.  Nothing was left unchecked by the team.  After the female bear was fitting for a tracking collar and given ear tags, the medication started to wear off and she started to come around.  We would leave her be and the next morning when a team would check the site she was gone.  

Day 2 started out with the teams splitting up to check all the sites and re-bait if needed, in as fast of a time a possible.  On our second site of the day, we found a male bear had been tempted by the honey buns and was caught in the trap.  Much like the information collected on the first bear was also collected on this male; however, there wasn't a tracking collar placed on him.  He got ear tags, measured, and got a microchip much like you use on your dog.  While the focus is on breeding females for the research, the male bear got a tattoo on his inner lip.  This is used for identification should he become killed on a hunt.  They will know that they had contact with him in 2017 and be able to determine migration.  

The joint effort on trapping bears WHAS

The information the teams collected is interesting and gives them valuable details on bears in Kentucky.  It was an honor to be able to have the opportunity to travel with this team and see how bears are moving closer and closer each day.  I hope that you enjoy the story and the information that we have collected for you here.  Thank you for allowing me to tell this story.

Tips on how to coexist, be safe with bears

Black bears are rarely aggressive, but residents who do see bears are asked to follow these steps.

To protect your environment or home

  • Remove trash cans from the outside
  • Temporarily remove bird feeders
  • Do not feed the bear
  • Clean and store your grill inside
  • Do not follow/harass the bear

Camping with bears WHAS

 

If you see any bears the following steps should be followed:

  • Enjoy it from a distance
  • Shout and wave your arms and back away slowly
  • Do not run or climb a tree
  • Never attempt to feed or attract bears

Report bear sightings in Kentucky to the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources at 1-800-858-1549. If you live in Indiana, report sightings to the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife at (812) 334-1137 or dfw@dnr.in.gov

Learn more about ways to protect your living space in the presence of bears.

Ky. Fish and Wildlife talks Bear Wise website, reporting bears WHAS

For more information on the Salato Wildlife Center click here. 

Black bear at Salato Wildlife Center WHAS

 

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