A new hunting season may be on the horizon in Oklahoma.
Based on research done by the Oklahoma Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, the black bear population in Oklahoma is estimated at 450.
“That’s a pretty conservative estimate,” said Chip Leslie, unit leader and part of the Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at Oklahoma State University. “I can’t tell you how many more there are but in wildlife biology we often come up with very conservative estimates.”
After an increasing volume of nuisance calls about bears ransacking campsites and breaking into places for food, Leslie was asked by the ODWC in 2000 to help research the black bear population in Oklahoma in the interest of proposing a hunting season.
“They were interested in trying to get a handle on how many bears there were in the state and what kind of habitats they prefer,” said Leslie.
Three graduate students from the division’s department of natural resource ecology and management worked on the project during the summers of 2004-2006, using various field approaches, including radio telemetry and DNA assessments to understand the habitat use, population characteristics, distribution and rates of westward expansion.
The results, which were submitted in June of this year, showed that female black bears will cover an area of 20-square miles, while males will cover larger areas, especially if they are younger bears and it is mating season.
“Young males really do tend to disperse. It’s often those bears that are getting into trouble,” Leslie said. “They get hit by cars on the highway, or get hungry, (develop) not-so-good habitats and start breaking into campsites and houses.”
Black bears once ranged across the forested regions of North America, before human settlers began to develop what was the bears’ habitat. 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 that the bears have more than just a chance at survival; it is almost a certainty.
“They do prefer to hang out in places that 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.”
Very few people in Oklahoma fully understand the habits of a bear, which potentially could lead to accidents.
“While bears occasionally bite and cause problems when people and bears are too close, it’s pretty rare,” Leslie said. “Often times, it seems like the human-animal problems result as much from our not understanding how to behave.”
Leslie does not expect the westward bear expansion to come to a stop on the Arkansas border. Black bears have already shown up in Muskogee, Wagoner and even areas north of these spots.
“We think there is room for growth. I don’t think they will go too far past I-35,” said Leslie. “The better bear habitat, in my opinion, is east of I-35.”
Black bears prefer a more forested area that produces big and abundant acorns, which are more prevalent in the eastern part of the state in oak-hardwood stands.
The increasing population of black bears is evident thanks, in part, to more nuisance calls about the bears; hence, the proposed hunting season. Leslie said the hunting proposal is very limited and restricted, taking place in the winter.
“At that time of year, the bears largely, particularly the females and their young, will already be in dens. There might be some males roaming around, so those could be harvested,” said Leslie. “(ODWC officials) really don’t believe too many will be shot. That would be quite a challenge.”
The proposal forbids the use of hunting dogs and baiting the bears.
Additional information on black bears in Oklahoma and other NREM projects is available by visiting http://nrem.okstate.edu  on the Internet.