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Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

The bear necessities of life

STILLWATER, Okla. – Bears may or may not do a lot of things in the woods, but graduate students in Oklahoma State University’s Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management are trying to fill in some of the unknowns.

In the early 20th century, black bears were extirpated from Oklahoma. As more people began to show up, the bears started to disappear and eventually did completely. However, in the 1950s and 1960s, several efforts were made in Arkansas to reintroduce black bears into the Ozark region.

By the late 1990s, black bears had begun to naturally disperse and recolonize in portions of eastern Oklahoma. In 2001, then graduate student, Sara Lyda, began researching bears in the state to get a handle on population numbers and the habitats they preferred.

Fast forward 16 years to present day Oklahoma, where there are two separate and distinctive black bear populations. The first, those living in the Ozark region, total less than 100 bears.

cub.jpg“Most of those are males, because those are the ones that move into the area first,” said Lyda, who is now a senior research specialist with NREM and the Oklahoma Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. “That is a very young and unstable population.”

The other group, who calls the Ouachita Mountains in extreme southeastern Oklahoma home, is much larger and more established. In fact, this group had been doing so well that the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation opened a hunting season in several counties in the area in 2009.

“The southeast has a very stable population,” Lyda said. “Even with the hunting season, this population is still growing, is doing well and has room to grow here.”

There is good reason for that, and with the continuing study of the bears, the researchers have been getting data to find out why. Erica Perez, NREM graduate student, has adopted this program and is currently holding the keys to this ongoing research vehicle.

During the summers, Perez and her team will trap adult bears and try to collar all the females and a few select males. She currently has 26 bears with GPS collars and while the male bears give the team of snapshot of how the population will expand geographically, the female bears are the stars of the show.

“Population growth for black bears is most sensitive to adult female survival, so this is why we primarily collar females,” Perez said. “We can get an idea of how they are surviving within each age class - cubs, yearlings, subadults, adults - and how successful they are at reproducing.”

The team uses the GPS collars to find the bears before they leave the den in late February and early March. At the den, Perez records weight, chest girth, sex and distinguishing marks for the cubs before inserting a PIT tag, passive integrated transponder, which can be scanned for identification purposes if the cub is ever caught again.

They’ll leave the collars on the momma bear in hopes of using her life story to gain more knowledge about the entire population.

“Our goal is to keep those females collared as long as possible,” Lyda said. “If you can follow that female from year to year, you can see how a good rain year has affected whether she has a lot of cubs, or her condition, things like that.”

The research has shown the habitat in southeastern Oklahoma is prime real estate for these bears, with ample amounts of forage being a major perk.

“The bears in Oklahoma and Arkansas are predominantly vegetarian. They eat acorns in particular, in the winter,” said Sue Fairbanks, NREM assistant professor. “They go into a situation where there are tying to put on weight as fast as they can and those acorns are a great food source for doing that.”

The good news for the folks with bear living amongst them is there have been no instances of bears attacking livestock, pets or people, at all, in Oklahoma.

“They are just not looking for meat,” Fairbanks said.

The research heavily suggests the population in the state is very healthy and bears will be around a long, long time. Continued research will be of great benefit, however.

“We’ve been extremely fortunate with our partnership and relationship with the wildlife department,” Lyda said. “If we can continue the research we’ve been doing and the monitoring, not only will it help the ODWC and their management efforts and help the bears, but it also will help other generations of students who will be coming up and will be our future wildlife biologists and managers to get the experience they need.”


Sean Hubbard
Communications Specialist0
Agricultural Communications Services
157 Agriculture North
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK 74078
Phone: 405-744-4490
Fax: 405-744-5739

Oklahoma State University - Stillwater, OK 74078

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