The Appalachia Georgia Friends of the Bears was started by Gerald & Connie Hodge on June 03, 2019, after a part-time resident pleaded for help in reporting a Black Bear road-kill on Georgia Highway 515 in Cherry Log, Georgia the previous day.
Gerald’s journey with Black Bears began in 2014 when he was walking his two geriatric German Shepherds on the Eureka Trail near Athens, Tennessee on Saturday, September 06, 2014. It was here he had his first encounter with a Black Bear in the wild. He saw what he originally thought it was a large dog or even a wild pig crossing the old railroad bed 100 meters ahead of him when he saw two bouncy youngsters accompanying it. The size and shape did not match those of a dog or a pig.
He continued down the trail and upon his return he saw scat that he had never seen before. He took a photograph of it and sent it to his Ph.D. Ecologist candidate daughter for her assistance. She had a class on scat in her undergraduate work. The judgment was that it was Black Bear scat! Wow!
How and why would Black Bears be in Athens, Tennessee? He then thought back to a June 2014 incident when a large Black Bear was killed by an SUV in Red Bank, Tennessee near where he lived while he went to college. He grew up just 24 miles north of Red Bank. “The only time we heard about Black Bears when I was growing up was in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina! We didn’t have Black Bears west of the Tennessee River.” Obviously, things had changed.
The City of Athens was responsible for trail maintenance and they had already had an issue with pet owners not cleaning up after their pets. He called the then Athens City Manager the next business day and told him that not all scat on the trail was horse or dog scat. The City Manager gave a visceral and emphatic denial that Black Bears were anywhere in McMinn County. Gerald trusted his daughter’s assessment and practical background. Not wanting to strain the partnership with the City of Athens and his previous organization, he let it go for now.
Flash forward to Monday, June 21, 2015. Gerald is in his Athens home, two blocks from the historic downtown Athens, for lunch and to give his two geriatric red Dobermans a break when they began to bark and act out of the ordinary. They were not barking as if it were at people walking their dogs, strangers walking up the alleyway, or the occasional cat, rabbit, or squirrel. The pitch, intensity, and duration were not like they had done before. Weird.
Citation. Hughes, Autumn. “Bears in Athens,” Daily Post Athenian, June 23, 2015. Screenshot, Accessed June 04, 2019.
Lunch was over and they were put back inside and he drove back to his office in the historic L&N Depot in Etowah, Tennessee. As he drove, his phone blew up pinging with text messages and Facebook notifications. When he was stopped he began to read them. People were talking about Black Bears running through downtown Athens! He began to laugh out loud! The location of where he saw the Sow Black Bear and two cubs the previous September was in direct line of drift with where the recently ejected Yearlings were photographed and his house in the Athens historic district. Vindication! Nope, no Black Bears in McMinn County, Tennessee Mr. City Manager! Nothing to see here! Move along! These are not the Droids you’re looking for!
On Sunday morning, October 09, 2016, just over 2 years, 1 month, and 3 days after Gerald saw the first Black Bear scat on the Eureka Trail he was on an 8-mile bike ride when he came across another Uris Americanus present on the trail. He stopped and took a picture and once again confirmed it with his daughter that it was indeed Black Bear scat. The Athens City Manager had announced at the beginning of June that he would retire at the end of 2016, so Gerald kept that spotting to himself.
In November 2016, Gerald met Connie and as they got to know each other they discovered they shared an interest in Black Bears. Connie had been a Facebook follower and supporter of the Appalachian Bear Rescue in Townsend, Tennessee for several years.
The months went by and as their love for each other grew, so did their love and knowledge of the Black Bears. Vacationing and ultimately living in Bear Country they frequently caught them on game cameras, saw signs, and unfortunately road-kill motivated them to learn more about their habitat, habits, and Human-Bear conflict. As their knowledge grew, they began to share information with others and advocate on their behalf. Gerald and Connie were married in November 2018.
On Sunday morning, June 02, 2019, Gerald stood in his church clothes beside Georgia Highway 515 on the southbound shoulder near Joann Sisson Road while the traffic rocketed by going back toward Atlanta. He had answered a lady’s desperate plea on a community message board about a Black Bear cub road-kill. “What a waste,” he said aloud to myself. It was a male Black Bear Yearling. It was family breakup time and he had his freedom and a chance to be independent for about one week. After a relatively sleepless night, he and Connie decided to formally begin a non-profit that would educate and advocate for the Black Bears in Appalachia Georgia.