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Bear Research in Oklahoma
By Sean Hubbard
She has to feel like an actress gracing the red carpet for the first time. Everyone is going crazy over the rare chance to catch a glimpse of her. Cameras are snapping and spectators are in awe.
At just five weeks old, this young lady is creating a long-lasting memory for the group of 25-or-so eager onlookers. But, more importantly, over the next several years, she will play a role in helping answer some of the questions lurking around her lifestyle.
Black bears are becoming increasingly prevalent throughout the landscape of eastern and southeastern Oklahoma. The Ouachita Mountains have served as the backdrop for many landowners in the area to tag along with researchers from Oklahoma State University’s Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
“Often, landowners will see a bear on their property and contact the Wildlife Department,” says Sue Fairbanks, NREM assistant professor and adviser to the project. “They (landowners) typically invite their families to join us when we check on the dens because most are excited to see the bears and take some pictures with the cubs.”
Catching a glimpse of a black bear in the state does not happen very often, however the species has been making a strong comeback in portions of Oklahoma.
Before humans developed much of their habitat, black bears ranged all over the forested regions of North America. However, early in the 20th century, black bears were extirpated from the state. As more people began to show up, the bears started to disappear and eventually did completely.
It wasn’t 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 at survival in the region.
Because of the increase in the Arkansas bear population, by the late 1990s, black bears had begun to naturally disperse and recolonize in portions of eastern Oklahoma, leading to a drastic increase in the volume of nuisance calls about bears ransacking campsites and breaking into places for food.
In 2001, Sara Lyda, then an NREM graduate student, 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 now two separate and distinctive black bear populations. One lives in the Ozark region and totals less than 100 bears.
“Most of those are males, because those are the ones that move into the area first,” says Lyda, who is now a senior research specialist with NREM. “That is a very young and unstable population.”
The other group, which is much larger and more established, calls the Ouachita Mountains in extreme southeastern Oklahoma home. In fact, this group has been doing so well that the Wildlife Department opened a hunting season in several counties in the area in 2009.
"The southeast has a very stable population,” Lyda says. “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 collecting data to fnd out why. Erica Perez, NREM graduate student, has adopted the program and currently holds the keys to this ongoing research vehicle.
“The Ouachita National Forest in the southeast provides a large, contiguous stretch of forest that is an excellent habitat for bears since it provides many of their main food items like berries and acorns,” says Perez. “The area in the Ozark region is much more fragmented due to human development, making it less able to support a big population like in the Ouachita region.”
The researchers currently have 148 bears tagged in the Ouachita study area, 79 males and 69 females, which means they’re catching roughly the same number of each sex. However, the group doesn’t put GPS satellite collars on all of them.
Of the 27 collared bears, 24 are female. Male bears give the team a snapshot of how the population may expand geographically, but the females are the stars of the show.
“Since population fluctuations rely heavily on adult female survival, we primarily focus on collaring females that are reproductively active,” Perez says. “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. This also allows us to track females to their winter dens to obtain counts of how many cubs they’re having.”
The team uses the GPS collars to find the bears before they leave their dens in late February and early March. This is the part of the research where landowners are invited to tag along for a den check.
Joining the researchers for the day’s work begins with a quick, early morning briefing of what the day will hold, then loading up in the trucks and heading out. With anticipation spilling out of the spectators’ pores, the drive through the Ouachita Mountains seems to take forever.
The train of vehicles park a half-mile-or-so away from the den location, which is home to one particular mama bear and her cub for the winter. The group waits as Perez and the team begin to meander through the hillside, quickly disappearing in the heavily forested area.
The spectators wait patiently and get their cameras ready while the researchers locate the den, sedate the approximately 200-pound mama bear and give the “all clear” to come on down, which doesn’t take too long.
It is a peaceful hike, with only the sounds of twigs breaking and leaves crackling under their boots. After a couple pit stops to catch their breath, the entire group has fnally made it to the den, where Perez has the cub wrapped in an orange OSU blanket.
The cub, seemingly feather-weight, cuddles as closely as possible to whoever is holding her. With a distinct odor, already razor sharp claws, thick fur, a wet nose and an endless supply of whimpers, the five-week-old cub clings on for dear life, searching for the warmest spot possible.
She gets passed from person to person, each equally excited about the novelty of holding one of Oklahoma’s most unique species of wildlife.
While the media frenzy is taking place, the researchers continue to monitor the vitals of the mama bear — checking her temperature, breathing and heartrate. The GPS collar around the bear’s neck also gets a thorough examination and replaced if there is any damage or the battery is getting low.
Once the spectators all get a chance to hold the baby and take as many photos as they can, showtime is over and it is time to get to work.
Perez records weight, chest girth, sex and distinguishing marks for the cubs before inserting a passive integrated transponder or PIT tag, which can be scanned for identifcation purposes if the cub is ever caught again.
Finally, a small sample of hair is plucked from the cub and out comes the cutest roar of all time. The group feels some sort of sympathy for the poor, little cub, but knows in the near future, the roar may be more terrifying than cute.
By tracking radio-collared bears to their winter dens, the researchers have found bears use a variety of shelters for dens including rock crevices, hollow trees, holes dug into the ground under the root ball of fallen trees and more.
New to the ongoing research is the use of ibuttons. This technology is programmed to record the temperature every four hours beginning at midnight.
“This will help determine the warmth provided by different types of dens, and determine whether pregnant female bears choose warmer dens than other bears,” Perez says. “The more we know about what constitutes a safe, warm den for the birth and survival of black bear cubs, the better we can identify and manage good black bear habitat.”
The bears enter their dens in December or January and typically remain there for several months.
“Black bears in Oklahoma will find a cozy spot and sleep through cold winters,” says Fairbanks. “They don’t eat or drink while denned, and their heart rate and metabolic rate drop. But, their body temperatures don’t decrease as much as small hibernators, like chipmunks and skunks.”
They’ll leave the collars on the mama 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,” says Lyda, who helps with the research efforts. “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. Black bears in Oklahoma prefer to not work too hard to fnd their food. A steady diet of fruits, berries, plants, ants and hard mast — like acorns and hickory nuts — typically does the trick.
However, throughout the year, a few of these items may be taken off the bear buffet. Changing seasons, lack of rainfall, human intrusion and fire can all play a role in what types of food will be available to the bear population.
“The bears in Oklahoma and Arkansas are predominantly vegetarian. They eat acorns, in particular, in the winter,” says Fairbanks. “They go into a situation where they are trying 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 bears 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 says.
The research heavily suggests the population in the state is very healthy and bears will be around a 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 says. “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.”
Leading this research project until she graduates with her master’s degree in May 2018, Perez is hoping to use her experience to further her education and career in wildlife.
“I have really come to enjoy the whole research process — from developing research questions and collecting my own data, to the end product of seeing the practical application of the work I have had the opportunity to be a part of. It’s my hope to enter into a Ph.D. program to further my education in ecology and wildlife science,” she says. “Upon completion of my schooling, I hope to work for a nonproft or government agency that aims to better understand and manage our natural resources.”
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Published in STATE Magazine, Volume 13, Number 2, Winter 2017 by STATE Editor Elizabeth Keys