The Ohatchee police officer said he expected dogs when he came upon what he described as a 300-pound bear on vacant property on Boiling Springs Road.
“I was looking at him like he was a bear, and he was looking at me like I was a pork chop,” Terry said. “That’s when I realized, ‘OK, I’ve seen a bear, what do I do now?’”
State wildlife officials said bear sightings are becoming more common in Calhoun County and throughout northeastern Alabama as male black bears from Georgia and Tennessee look for new territory and female bears in the spring and summer months.
“They just told me they know they’re here, and they’re not aggressive or dangerous,” said Terry, who reported his bear encounter to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “So that’s what I’ve been trying to tell people. Watch out, especially at night, and if you see them, just leave them alone.”
Keith Gauldin, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Conservation who’s coordinating bear-sighting reports from throughout the state, said he hadn’t heard reports Thursday about the Ohatchee bears, but isn’t surprised some might be in the area. In May, Gauldin said, he got two separate reports about black bear sightings in McClellan and on Cottaquilla Road near White Plains.
“These are bears coming over from Georgia on the Appalachians,” Gauldin said. “In the spring and summer, male bears will cover great distances to find territory or female bears.”
Bear sightings in the area are “uncommon” but not rare, Gauldin said, and the bears have been seen as deep in the state as the Birmingham area.
At least one sighting was captured on camera at the Center for Domestic Preparedness in McClellan. On May 5 around 9:30 p.m., security cameras near a training facility at the center picked up images of a bear. Lisa Hunter, director of external affairs at the center, said it’s the first time anyone she talked to could recall seeing a bear near the area.
“Everybody was intrigued, but they said, ‘The bear didn't bother us and we didn't bother the bear,’” Hunter said.
Gauldin said there is no indication the bears are sticking around the area. So far there have been no reported cub or female sightings. But with all the open land in this part of the state, Gauldin thinks northeastern Alabama could establish itself as bear country in the future.
Gene McGlaughen, a lifelong Ohatchee resident, said he remembers bears in the area during his childhood. But until he spotted one Wednesday night in his backyard on Alabama 144, less than half a mile from Terry’s sighting, it had been decades since he’d seen a bear in the area, he said.
“I heard dogs barking and I thought maybe they had a raccoon,” McGlaughen said. “I think that was about the last thing I was expecting to see.”
Terry said so far there have been no reports about bears causing any damage or harm. If a resident comes across a bear, he said, it’s important to stay away.
“Just leave them alone” is the mantra Gauldin said the Department of Conservation tries to teach the public. None of the bear sightings in northeastern Alabama seem to be attracting any nuisance reports, nor do the bears appear to be aggressive. As long as they don’t feel threatened, they won’t attack, he said.
“As long as they’re just hanging out being bears, enjoying life, that’s fine,” Terry said. “They’re not dangerous, they’re not being a nuisance; they’re just here.”
Gauldin said anyone who wants to report a bear sighting or who has questions about the animals can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star. Staff Writer Laura Gaddy contributed reporting to this story.