Oklahoma Researchers Track Black Bears in Northeast

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While black bears in southeast Oklahoma have been studied extensively by biologists and are even pursued by hunters each fall, less is known about bears inhabiting the northeast portion of the state. But a research project by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation in partnership with the Oklahoma Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Oklahoma State University is helping to change that.

"The goal of the project is to establish the status and distribution of black bears in the northeast region of the state," said Craig Endicott, northeast region wildlife supervisor for the Wildlife Department and the project leader.

Still in its first year, the three-year research effort involves trapping bears for tagging and collection of biological data such as measurements, age estimates and DNA samples.

With more than two years of studying still ahead, researchers have already trapped and examined six bears, primarily in and around Sequoyah, Cherokee and Adair counties on both public and private lands.

Some bears have been fitted with satellite-based GPS tracking collars that researchers use to monitor range and breeding success. Collared female bears will be tracked to den sites where they give birth to cubs in winter. The adult female can be temporarily sedated to collect data on her overall condition and to mark and gather information on cubs. The high-tech collars do not inhibit the bears' normal activities, and they provide researchers with location readings at four key times each day, providing details about individual ranges and habits. Trends and other important information can be revealed in their findings.

"The GPS collars give us a fantastic look at the daily travels of the collared bears," said Sara Lyda, an OSU research associate working with the Wildlife Department to study bears in the region. "We have already recorded that these females often travel seven to 10 miles per day within their home ranges."

In addition to trapping and tracking, hair samples are being collected with wire devices designed to pluck strands of fur from bears' hides as they travel to and from bait sites. Collecting DNA from hair samples helps researchers identify individual bears and understand the genetic diversity of bear populations in an area.

OSU also is working with Wildlife Department biologists, technicians and game wardens to monitor bait stations placed throughout counties in northeast Oklahoma. This effort will indicate the geographic range of black bears in the northeast region.

By studying range distributions, breeding success, body conditions, genetic diversity, feeding habits and other data collected during the project, biologists will learn important information about the health and stability of black bear populations in the northeast region.

The Oklahoma Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit is a program of the U.S. Geological Survey. Since 1948, it has been an integral part of OSU and wildlife and fish research in Oklahoma, helping cooperators like the Wildlife Department collect useful information on a variety of resource issues.

Oklahoma black bears were put in the spotlight in 2009, when the first official hunting season took place in a four-county region of southeast Oklahoma. The season came after years of research and nuisance bear control, but prior to that, many Oklahomans may not have even been aware of the existence of bears in the state.

Black bears once ranged over the entire area of what is now Oklahoma, but by the early 1900s, sightings had become rare. Factors like land use changes, unregulated hunting and habitat fragmentation caused black bear numbers to eventually decline drastically. In the late 1900s, however, black bears began making a comeback in Oklahoma after their successful reintroduction in the Ozark and Ouachita mountains of Arkansas. That initial relocation of about 250 bears from northern Minnesota and Manitoba, Canada, turned into thousands of bears in the mountains of Arkansas, which then expanded into southwestern Missouri and eastern Oklahoma.

This successful reestablishment of black bears led to a renewed bear hunting season in Arkansas in 1980 and in Oklahoma in 2009.

Today, the species represents an important part of the state's wildlife diversity. The presence of black bears in an area can indicate good wildlife habitat, because the habitat requirements for black bears are often more demanding than for other species.

The Oklahoma Station of the Safari Club International continued their commitment to conservation by providing important funding for this bear research project. The Oklahoma Station Chapter Safari Club International has partnered with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation on a number of important research projects including, Hunters Against Hunger, Operation Game Thief, hunter education and other wildlife conservation efforts. The mission of the Oklahoma Station Chapter Safari Club International is to protect the freedom to hunt and promote wildlife conservation in the state of Oklahoma and worldwide. To learn more about this unique organization log on to oklahomastationsci.org.

To learn more about the Wildlife Department, the state agency charged with conserving the state's wildlife, log on to wildlifedepartment.com