Mississippi black bear program makes strides

Published 1:18 pm Monday, October 16, 2023

BROOKHAVEN — Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Black Bear Program had one common question asked last week, when is Mississippi getting a bear hunting season? The question stems from Louisiana announcing it will work toward creating a new black bear season. 

Bear Program Coordinator Anthony Ballard said the question of when Mississippi will have a bear season is a lot harder to answer. Black bears are native to Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and Tennessee. Unregulated hunting and loss of habitat in the late 1800s drove the bear population down to threatened levels. 

Additionally, Ballard said he often gets asked how many bears Mississippi has. Mississippi’s best estimate for its bear population at the start of the bear program was 50 bears. They do not have an up-to-date estimate yet. The population question must be answered before determining a hunting season for bears in Mississippi. A lot of fieldwork was completed this summer to better answer those questions. 

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“To have a hunting season, you have to figure out how much of the population you can take away to have a stable population. We are trying to figure out our population because our estimate is outdated. All I can do is guess on a population until we get a good estimate.” 

Data has been collected through hair snare sampling in a multi-state project with Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee. They are pooling genetic data to look at the population’s demographics like the sex and age makeup. 

The pieces will be put together to make a puzzle. MDWFP has the data now. Mississippi State University’s College of Forest Resources will need to analyze the data before any conclusions can be drawn from the hair snare research project. MSU serves as the unofficial research arm of MDWFP. Ballard said he is not sure how long it will take. 

Strong trapping season

Ballard said the department undertook a research project to collar several bears this summer and they collared 22 black bears. He managed to trap 12 of those himself. Ballard said he wanted to highlight the ingenuity it took to accomplish the collaring project. 

“We have done a lot of work this summer. I’m proud of how I built a trap to integrate the livestream cameras we used for trapping hogs. It is one of those things where it is a game changer for trapping bears,” Ballard said. 

He previously oversaw the Wild Hog program for MDWFP and handles nuisance animals such as coyotes. HogEye is the livestream camera made in Mississippi used to trap hogs. Ballard took the camera and fabricated his own trap to use it. He said a fabricating company wanted thousands of dollars for the project, so he took it upon himself to build his own trap for much less. 

Mississippi previously used what is called a culvert trap. It looks like a big metal pipe and is set off by a pressure panel inside. Ballard said there are some days when the heat causes an unsafe situation, so having livestream cameras helps in making the decision to trap. 

His new trap is made to where bears can see out of it and thus do not feel as confined. Wires for the livestream camera and other electronics are in a conduit, so bears are unable to chew on wires. The trap is part of a trailer. Ballard said all he has to do is drop the jacks and leave it standing. 

“I built the trap out of a whole bunch of metal, welding, cutting and sweat in the process,” Ballard said. “I can drop the trap on my command and select for particular individuals. If a bear is already collared, you can avoid trapping them. Or if a dangerous situation, such as a sow with a cub comes along, you may not want to drop the trap. It gives you a level of control you can not get anywhere else.” 

Traps have traditionally been baited with day-old doughnuts thrown out by bakeries, but Ballard made an adjustment this year. He noticed bears in Mississippi preferred corn and protein feed found in deer feeders. 

Feed is placed in the bear traps in addition to a scented lure like vanilla to help sweeten the pot. Bears have a strong sense of smell, seven times better than a dog, and the scent lures help catch their attention. Ballard would often play the wind to where the scent would blow to where bears were thought to be. 

Ballard said he learned to weld while working for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. A guy who worked there asked him if he wanted to learn how to weld. Ballard was taught how to stick and wire weld. He built some hog traps for the LDWF, which gave him some familiarity with the system. 

“I go to high schools, middle schools and colleges to speak, and I tell them if there is anything they can learn to do, just learn it,” Ballard said. 

Check back tomorrow morning for more on Mississippi’s black bear program.