january 17, 2003

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OSU Researcher Learning Bear Facts
By Carolyn Gonzales
Sara Bales
BEAR FACTS--Sara Bales, Oklahoma State University wildlife ecology student, is shown with one of the black bears she is helping to evaluate as part of the state's first comprehensive bear study. The bears are trapped, sedated, studied and released back into the wilderness.

Most people do their best to avoid meeting a bear in the wilderness, but not Sara Bales. In fact, it's a good day for her when she not only sees a bear but is able to get her hands on it.

Bales, 25, is working on her master's degree in wildlife ecology at Oklahoma State University. She's spent a year and a half studying black bears in the Ouachita Mountains of southeast Oklahoma as part of the first comprehensive bear study ever done in the state. She works under the supervision of Dr. Eric Hellgren, OSU zoology professor. The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC), the Oklahoma Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and federal funds from the OSU Forestry Department are supporting the current study.

Increasing numbers of bear visits to ODWC bait stations and increased numbers of human/bear encounters in Oklahoma led governing agencies to believe they needed more detailed information to plan for proper management of bear populations in the state.

Black bears normally eat acorns and other nuts and berries in the forest, but they're occasionally lured into human inhabited areas by the prospect of free pet food and garbage. These uninvited guests often have to be moved to a more secluded area. Black bears, which are sometimes cinnamon-colored or even white in northern areas, are the only type of bear living in Oklahoma.

Unregulated hunting by late 19th century settlers wiped out earlier black bear populations in the state by 1915. Arkansas also had lost most of its bear population by the 1940s. To help re-establish black bears in the state, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission captured 250 black bears in Minnesota and Manitoba, Canada from 1958-68 and released them in the Ozark and Ouachita mountains.

The project was successful, and bear populations, which are estimated to be between 2,000 and 3,000 in Arkansas, have increased to the point that Arkansas now allows regulated bear hunting. Oklahoma's bear population is thought to be much smaller—probably in the hundreds. Oklahoma does not allow bear hunting.

OSU's three-year study will provide a population and density estimate and outline habitat uses and reproductive and survival rates for the 345-kilometer study area. Hellgren hopes additional funding can be obtained to continue studies on a much larger scale.

After being trapped, the bear is sedated, and researchers examine it to determine its age, weight and other information. Bears also are marked with small tattoos inside their mouths so they can be identified later. Female bears, which don't roam as far as males, are fitted with radio telemetry collars, which emit signals that can be tracked to determine a bear's habitat use. Researchers also track females to their dens in winter to record information about the bear and her cubs.

Black bears generally are not aggressive, but wild animals can be unpredictable. Of the 51 bears she's trapped, Bales says the largest bear she's encountered was a 360-pound male. She says trapping isn't too dangerous if researchers take proper precautions. The scientists also make every effort to avoid injuring bears during the trapping and evaluation processes.

Bales is pleased that OSU's bear study will provide essential information that will help protect both the interests of the public and the state's bear population.

Story Contact: Natalea Watkins, Oklahoma State University