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MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Daniel Powell's e-mail inbox has been lighting up recently with people contacting him about black bear sightings.

Powell is the director of the Alabama Black Bear Alliance and he has been very busy the past couple of years. In Alabama, as throughout the nation, black bear sightings have been on the rise, as the population increases and the bruins move into areas where they haven't been for generations.

"Bears travel this time of year," Powell said. "Mature males are out looking for receptive females. And mamma bears have driven off juvenile males, and the young males are looking for their own territory.

"It's not uncommon for a male bear to roam several hundred miles, so they can go from state to state very easily," he said.

Shifts in public opinion about black bears are key to their population boom, said Lynn Rogers, a nationally recognized black bear expert with the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minn.

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An estimated 950,000 black bears are in the United States today, almost double the numbers of 450,000 in the early 20th century, Rogers said.

"Education is the key. People no longer look on bears as vermin to be exterminated," he said. "In most states, black bears are game animals, and several states have hunting seasons for bears. Once anything has a value placed on it, it's easier to protect.

"People are now more aware of the role that black bears play in the environment," Rogers said. "We have taught people what it takes to live with bears, so there is a more accepting attitude now from, say, 30 or 40 years ago."

Black bear awareness was a hot topic recently in Illinois, after a single black bear made 300-mile jaunt through northern Illinois from late May to the end of June. Illinois has no native black bears, so the animal was likely a visitor from Wisconsin, said Chris Young, spokesman for the state's Department of Natural Resources.

"The bear's journey generated a lot of attention and interest," he said. "We used it as a teachable moment to educate the public about black bears. As their population increases, we will see more bears travel through and we will have a native population in the future if the trend of bears expanding their range continues."

And bears are thriving even in areas that many would not consider to be bear territory.

Massachusetts had an estimated 100 bears in the 1970s and the state now has about 4,000 bears, said Laura Conlee, fur-bearer biologist and black bear project leader for the state's Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. The state has a 35-day bear hunting season.

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"We are the third most densely populated state in the country," she said. "But Massachusetts is bear country. We are heavily forested once you get out of the Boston area with its adjacent suburbs, and that's prime bear habitat.

"The bear population is steadily moving eastward," Conlee said. "Each year we have reports of male bears wandering into the Boston suburbs."

Marty Roney, @MartyRoney1, also reports for The Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser.

Bear safety

What should you do if lucky enough to encounter/observe If you encounter a black bear:?

• Do not be frightened.

• Do not approach the animal.

• Do not run from the bear; back away slowly.

• Stand tall and upright.

• Avoid direct eye contact with the bear.

• Make sure the bear has a unobstructed direction to escape.

• Never feed a bear on purpose.

• Don't leave food sources outside, such as pet food containers and garbage cans, that will attract bears

Source: Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

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