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CCU Atheneum: Black bears are often spotted in the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve in Conway.
Black bears are often spotted in the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve in Conway.

Counting Horry County's black bears hair-by-hair

by Corrie Lee Lacey
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“Everybody loves Krispy Kreme doughnuts,” says Kayla Munnerlyn. Even a 200-pound black bear can be persuaded to cross a barbwire fence to get his paws on the glazed pastry. Munnerlyn knows this firsthand. She’s spending her summer researching black bears – in fact, she counting their hairs.

Munnerlyn, a senior interdisciplinary studies major with an emphasis in environmental and natural resource management, is an interning technician for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR). This summer she’s spending most of her time on Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve near Conway for the Coastal Black Bear Research Project, gathering hair samples in an effort to determine the black bear population in the area.

The first step is to construct a “trap” to collect bear hairs (not the bears themselves). Two rows of barbed wire fence are stretched around four trees, creating a “box” about four feet high. A string is then tied from two trees inside the box. The bait, which is a cotton material soaked in raspberry scented liquid, is hung from the tree. The scent drives the bears crazy, attracting them from over a mile away.

The doughnuts are hung in a biodegradable bag next to the bait – a rewarding treat for the bears’ effort crossing the fence. As the bears head for the doughnuts, the barbs catch their fur, which is called a snare. Once the bear leaves the area, Kayla moves in to collect the snares and sends them to the lab for DNA analysis.

The Coastal Black Bear Project has 42 traps spread across the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve and the Francis Marion National Forest in Charleston and Berkeley County. The process allows DNR to identify specific bears, which helps them determine the number of black bears in Horry County and surrounding counties and create a modeling population.

The traps are not always fool proof for catching bear snares. One Monday morning when Munnerlyn checked four traps, all had been hit – meaning the bait was gone – but no hairs were left behind.

“These bear are pretty smart,” she says. “The bear probably climbed the tree on one corner, stepped on the wire and took the doughnuts.”

Other times Munnerlyn finds plenty of snares. On June 7 she collected 37 hair samples from 21 traps. Another day she collected 16 hair samples from a mere five traps.

Munnerlyn started working with the Coastal Black Bear Project when it was initiated in 2008. In addition to collecting hair samples, she spends a lot of time outdoors, conducting property checks, cleaning debris from fire breaks, and posting boundary signs. Despite the heat and humidity, the difficult terrain (everything from thick brush to swamp), and the obvious threat that comes with working around wildlife (especially bears), the Horry county native devotes 10 hours each day to the project. Don’t be deceived by her small frame and feminine features. Laying shingles and working on bulldozers are all in a days work for her. She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty.

Surprising, Kayla has had few encounters with the bears. She does, however, see plenty of other wildlife.

“One day I saw about 30 feral hogs cross the road right in font of my truck,” Kayla says. “I saw turkeys and even heard a yearling.”

She feels working with DNR and the Coastal Black Bear Project has not only allowed her to learn the habits of black bears and other wildlife but has also been beneficial to her education and is reinforcing her desire to work toward protecting the environment.

“My time here has been so rewarding,” says Kayla. “I have gained so much knowledge and experience by being involved with the project. I hope it will lead me to make the right decision about my career choice. I love the outdoors and doing everything possible to protect our natural resources.”

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