Research on black bears shows higher population estimates
Winnie the Pooh loves honey, but the black bears in Oklahoma prefer glazed donuts.
According to researchers in the Oklahoma Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, day-old donuts are the bait of choice when trapping bears in the eastern part of the state. The trapping began in 2000 after Chip Leslie, FWRU leader, received a call from the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation after an increasing volume of nuisance calls about bears ransacking campsites and breaking into places for food.
"They were interested in trying to get a handle on how many bears there were in the state, and what kind of habitats they preferred," said Leslie.
The initial population estimate was 450, which was admittedly conservative. After more than a decade of research from graduate students in Oklahoma State University's Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, and a couple of bear hunting seasons in select counties, the Oklahoma black bear population is estimated in the neighborhood of 1,600 to 1,800.
The increased population estimate led the ODWC to increase its harvest limits on black bears for this hunting season. A quota of 20 bears, which was met and exceeded after the first day of the season the last two seasons, was removed and archery season for 2012 did not have a quota.
During the 21-day archery season for Latimer, LaFlore, McCurtain and Pushmataha counties, a total of 66 bears were harvested; 33 males and 33 females, said Joe Hemphill, southeast region supervisor for the ODWC. Muzzleloader season hads a 20-bear quota, with the shooting of cubs or females with cubs prohibited.
Before humans developed much of their habitat, black bears ranged all over the forested regions of North America. It was not until the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission successfully reintroduced black bears into the Ouachita and Ozark Mountains in the 1960s that the bears even had a shot for survival in the region.
Because of the increase in the Arkansas bear population, growing numbers of bears have been moving from Arkansas into eastern Oklahoma. NREM's research now shows the bears have more than just a chance at survival; it's almost a certainty.
"They do prefer to hang out in places we're not tromping around in. When you look at northeastern Oklahoma, it's a pretty recreational area," said Leslie. "There are some secluded areas, like in the Boston Mountains, where I suspect bears could get a foothold and become more abundant."
The research has been more recently geared toward trapping bears in areas in which their population numbers are not yet that high. Leslie said bears have been trapped and tagged with GPS collars as far north as Cherokee County. Currently, eight female adult bears are collared and being tracked.
"They stay pretty much in the forest and move fairly regularly from one deer feeder to the next," Leslie said, referring to the near 5,000 satellite fixes the research team has. "They will eat the corn from one deer feeder before moving two or three miles to another."
Female black bears will cover an area of 20-square miles, while males will cover larger areas, especially ifthey are younger bears and it is mating season.
"Young males really do tend to disperse. It's often those bears that are dispersing that get into trouble," Leslie said. "They get hit by cars on the highway, or get hungry and get in not-so-good habitats and start breaking into campsites and houses."
The northern expansion of the bears could lead to more counties having the opportunity for a bear hunting season.
"Hopefully, our research will clarify that," Leslie said.