Black Bears in Oaky Woods

by John Trussell
originally published in the December 2007 edition of Georgia Outdoor News magazine

A recent study on the middle Georgia black bear population, conducted by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources with the assistance of University of Georgia researcher Kacy Cook in cooperation with landowners, concluded June 30, 2007 with some very interesting results.

Three bear cubs found by wildlife biologists on Oaky Woods WMA in 2007.
Bobby Bond, a Senior Wildlife Biologist from the Fort Valley DNR office who assisted with the study, said that the total population is very low, with only approximately 300 bears holding on to existence in the isolated woodlands of Oaky Woods, Ocmulgee Wildlife Management Areas and along the Ocmulgee River Corridor. In the 1700's, prior to widespread farming and development, bears inhabited all of Georgia. But with continued human population growth, the bears were killed out and the survivors pushed into isolated, remote locations. Today the DNR estimates that 1,200 – 1,500 bears live in the rugged North Georgia Mountains, while 700-800 live around and in the Okefenokee Swamp, inhabiting ranges that are five times larger than the Central Georgia range. Of the three populations, the Central Georgia bears are in the most perilous situation due to loss of habitat and low population. However, Bond says the present population is stable and may have slightly increased since the 1980's due to the protection of remote habitats on Oaky Woods and Ocmulgee WMAs. The protected boundaries for Central Georgia bears have diminished sharply since timber giant Weyerhaeuser's sell out in 2004. Previously, Georgia leased or owned 47,000 acres along the Ocmulgee River in Houston, Twiggs and Pulaski Counties, about 28,000 in Ocmulgee WMA and the remainder in Oaky Woods WMA. Since the sale, the state has lost 7,350 in Ocmulgee WMA and all the Oaky Woods tract was sold to private developers who plan to place up to 30,000 residential or commercial properties on the land. This would result in an approximately 50% decrease in habitat for the Middle Georgia bear population. This vast loss of habitat would be very detrimental to the bear population, says Raye Jones, Oaky Woods Manager and Wildlife Biologist Rashida Stanley, and could mean the total die-off of the Middle Georgia bear population in the foreseeable future.

Adult black bear observed during the bear study on Oaky Woods WMA in 2007.
In conducting the bear study, 84 bears were captured on Oaky Woods, Ocmulgee WMAs and nearby properties. Each bear was measured, weighed and aged. The average age of males was 4 years, while females were slightly older at 6 years. The average weight was 220 pounds for males, 130 pounds for females. Surprisingly, the annual home range for females was 3,600 acres, but for males it was 10 times larger at 41,600 acres. The largest bear weighed a whopping 460 pounds, but it was killed while crossing a road in south Houston County. Road mortality was the leading cause of death for the bears, with 10 road killed bears reported in 2006, but the number could be higher. In 2005, there were 17 reported road killed bears in Central Georgia with most fatalities occurring on GA Highway 96 from the Ocmulgee River the GA 129/87 Tarversville intersection then just a few miles north and south of that intersection along GA 129/87. Perhaps because the Middle Georgia bear population has less land to roam, the road kill number is higher here than both the north and south Georgia population, according to Bond. One bear, says Bond, was a real long distance traveler and went 31 miles into Wilcox County. But it was poached and left dead in the woods, illustrating the threat bears face when they travel away from the protected and isolated habitat of Oaky Woods and Ocmulgee WMA.

What lies ahead for Oaky Woods WMA and the bear population? Much is unsettled, but for now the owners continue to lease the property to the state for Wildlife Management Area use. Meanwhile they are proceeding ahead with plans for a very large residential and commercial development called "Winding River." They also have pending plans for a ground application sewage plant on land located near Kovac Road. Since a sewage plant is not allowed on rural-agricultural zoned land, their zoning appeals request will begin with the Zoning Appeals Board, who only have recommending authority on this issue, with final action being taken by the Houston County Commissioners. Although the owners request is pending, the actual date of the hearings before county officials is not yet set, but expected very soon. The public is invited to attend these hearings and express opinions. For more information of these hearings, citizens may call the Houston County Planning and Zoning Office at 478-542-2018.

While the development plans on Oaky Woods are pending, there is still hope that all or major portions of the Oaky Woods WMA can be purchased for continued public outdoor recreational use. This writer spoke with Governor Sonny Perdue at the GON Outdoor Show in Macon in August and again  in December and he expressed a positive attitude in stating that if Houston County officials can promote and pass a local bond issue it would certainly help leverage larger amounts of available state conservation funds and encouraged the effort. State Senator Ross Tolleson also stated that he would like to see the Houston County and the state purchase major portions or "sensitive areas" of the WMA. Recently the citizens of Paulding County, with a 70% "yes" approval vote, passed a 15 million dollar bond issue to purchase 7,200 acres of Paulding WMA that were threatened by development. Their action will raise the tax on a 200,000 home by 23.40 per year, or less than 2.00 per month. This writer has discussed a bond issue, similar to the one passed in Paulding County with all the Houston County Commissioners and all express a desire to hear more information, but no official actions have taken place. This writer has also discussed the preservation and purchase of Oaky Woods with two members of the Governor's Land Conservation Council who reside in central Georgia. Both Chuck Levell, the well known keyboard player for The Rolling Stones band who resides in Twiggs County and Dr. John Bembry, a veterinarian from Hawkinsville, said they would very much like to see a proposal to purchase Oaky Woods WMA to come before their board in an application for state funds. The Land Conservation Council was appropriated 42 million dollars for purchase of statewide conservation lands and 26 million from the Nature Conservancy may still be available if local and state officials can put together a viable proposal. But much remains to be resolved.

Will the owners continue to push ahead with development plans or will they agree to a reasonable appraisal price for the property and assist with public purchase of the property to ensure that this legacy tract remains intact for future generations? If the property is developed, Bond anticipates that the nuisance bear complaints will skyrocket up as it hard to imagine property owners using 30,000 bear proof trash cans and using good care in not leaving dog food and other food sources in their yards that will attract bears. Many questions remain and the ending has not yet been written, but ultimately the bears will end up losing in the bear verus man struggle on Oaky Woods WMA if the land is developed.

In the meantime, a one day bear hunt is scheduled for Ocmulgee WMA for December 15th, but no bear hunting is allowed on the Gum Swamp tract. In the past, a few hundred hunters have participated in these hunts and typically one bear has been harvested every other year, but no bears have been harvested since 2001. According to Kevin Kramer, Region Wildlife Biologist, the hunt allows bear hunters a limited opportunity to bag a bear without harming the resource and it helps to educate the public about Middle Georgia's unique bear population. The one day hunt is only held on Ocmulgee WMA to help concentrate hunters and DNR staff on one tract while Oaky Woods has been maintained as a refuge for the bears. Hunters must check in at the Ocmulgee check station and are limited to one bear with a minimum weight of 75 pounds. Hunting success on this hunt is very low, usually about one percent and the last bear was harvested in 2001, but the hunt gives hunters a chance to participate in a special hunting experience and strenghtens public support for a healthy bear population.