Harvest of Black Bears in the Ongoing Management of Expanding Populations in Oklahoma

USGS Cooperative Research Unit Corner

Harvest of Black Bears in the Ongoing Management of Expanding Populations in Oklahoma


The Oklahoma Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and faculty and students from Oklahoma State University are studying spread, population viability, and habitat use of expanding black bear populations in eastern Oklahoma. The research is supported by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) through funding from the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Program.

The distribution of black bears (Ursus americanus) historically included Oklahoma and Arkansas. During the late 1800s, over-hunting and habitat loss reduced those populations to near extinction in this region. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission reintroduced black bears to the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. The reintroduction efforts were successful, and by the late 1990s, the ODWC recognized that black bears were expanding into eastern Oklahoma.

In the early 2000s, it became clear that a core population in southeastern Oklahoma could provide sportsmen the opportunity to hunt black bears. The first season occurred in autumn 2009, and 233 black bears were harvested through 2014. Black bear populations continue to expand northward in eastern Oklahoma, and current research is focused on assessing the impact of the first six years of harvest on the core population and collecting data to see if the harvest can be expanded into areas where black bears are becoming more common. Using barrel traps and M15 Bucket Snares, teams are capturing and marking black bears in the Ozark and Ouachita regions of Oklahoma. Satellite collars are being deployed on females and select males. These collars offer the opportunity to collect more locational data (up to six locations per day) than traditional VHF collars. Using these data, the research team can evaluate population expansion and monitor reproduction and cub-to-yearling survival during winter den surveys.

Research in the Ozarks began in 2011, with trapping efforts focused in Sequoyah, Cherokee, and Adair counties. In this region, most available black bear habitat is privately owned, and those properties are often used for hunting, with wildlife feeders dotting the landscape. Private landowners and cooperators made it possible for research teams to capture, mark, and track black bears for the past five years. During that time, 50 bears (14 females, 36 males) were marked during summer and an additional 27 cubs (10 females, 17 males) were marked with Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags in dens. Winter den visits revealed that at least 10 cubs did not survive; however, four male yearlings with PIT tags were subsequently captured during summer trapping. More than 13,000 satellite locations have been recorded and are currently being analyzed to determine home range size and habitat use. It is obvious that bears in the Ozarks rely heavily on wildlife feeders when natural food sources are scarce. This may be beneficial to bears during years of mast failure, but it also creates conflicts with hunters when bears break feeders and consume 100s of pounds of feed!

In 2014, teams resumed work in southeastern Oklahoma to describe the changes in and expansion of the bear population centered in the Ouachita National Forest. Trap lines originally developed in LeFlore County in 2001 were reinstated, and new lines were developed in McCurtain and Pushmataha counties. During two years of summer trapping, 123 black bears (63 females, 60 males) were marked and more than 35 satellite collars were deployed. The team was excited to recapture five bears (4 females, 1 male) originally marked during 2001?2002 trapping efforts, and to record that the females were reproductive at 19 years of age. In 2015, teams located six females in winter dens and marked 15 cubs (5 females, 10 males) with PIT tags.

The first stages of research are drawing to a close this spring, but research will continue through June 2018. Expanded trapping efforts and continued monitoring of females marked with satellite collars will allow us to assess the distribution and give us a better understanding of reproduction and survival of bears in both regions. The success of this research is a direct result of the strong working relationships among the partnering agencies and the willingness of private landowners to open their gates.

The ONB features articles from Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units across the country. Working with key cooperators, including WMI, Units are leading exciting, new fish and wildlife research projects that we believe our readers will appreciate reading about. This article was written by David (Chip) Leslie (cleslie@usgs.gov), Unit Leader at the USGS Oklahoma Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Oklahoma State University, and by Sara Lyda, Senior Research Scientist at Oklahoma State University (sara.lyda@okstate.edu).

February 16, 2016