Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

March 6, 2014

The bear facts

Study on local bear population precursor to hunting season

TAHLEQUAH — A joint project linking two state agencies with researchers at Oklahoma State University is gathering the “bear facts” on a growing population in the northeastern part of the state.

A six-year study on black bears in Cherokee, Adair and Sequoyah counties is being conducted as a precursor to possible establishment of a controlled hunting season in Green Country. The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, Oklahoma Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, and Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management of Oklahoma State University have partnered for the endeavor.

The program fell into the spotlight last May, when a young bear wandered into Tahlequah and climbed a tree near the Northeastern State University campus, creating a major media event. That bear was captured by wildlife department officials, and was tagged and released in the Cookson Wildlife Refuge.

Game Warden Brady May has been involved with the study since its inception. He was part of the team that snared the wandering bear, whom researchers named “Tarzan.”

“He’d never been captured before, so we put a radio collar on him, took samples and DNA, and put a radio chip under his skin,” May said. “He roamed around Cookson most of the spring and summer, and he’s still holed up around the lake [Tenkiller].”

This week, photos circulated on Facebook of a young man holding a cub, and the social media crowd suggested it had been found in Keys, possibly abandoned by its mother. Turns out the guy holding the cub was May’s nephew, Jeremy Crittenden, who was helping with the study. And the mother bear is very much alive.

“Right now, we’re doing the den work. They sit on a computer and get 10 readings a day,” said May.

Researchers first shine a light in the hole where the sow and cubs are hibernating.

“They’re not asleep like you might think,” May said. “You can see their eyes glowing in there.”

If a sow is part of the study, she’s wearing a device that records her travels. Typically in January, the tag emits a “mortality signal,” which helps researchers pinpoint her location. This doesn’t mean the bear has died, but rather that she has entered her den and stopped moving.

“If that happens in the summertime, the bear may have been hit on the highway, traveled and died somewhere, and then you have to go find it,” May said.

When cubs are present, they give away their location.

“You listen quietly and you can hear the babies in there, squealing like a bunch of pups,” May said.

A team member pushes a pole into the den and darts the sow. Then the cubs – about 6 to 8 weeks old by this time – are removed and outfitted with microchips. Researchers record their sex and other data, then tuck them back in with their mother.

Last year, May himself inspected one of the dens, which contained a sow named “Peaches” and two male cubs. May’s wife, Alice, a kindergarten teacher, was allowed to accompany him, and she later used the opportunity as an educational tool for her students.

May believes 25 bears in the three-county area are currently wearing collars for the study.

“What they’re trying to do is determine overall population and reproductive efforts, and put all that together over a longer period of time to see if population is viable enough to sustain itself if we open a hunting season,” May said. “Southeast Oklahoma has had a season for four years now. For opening day, they set the limit at 25 bears, and they filled the limit just on archery.”

The limit is for the overall population rather than per hunter, so a sportsman aiming to bag a bear must repeatedly check to ensure the limit hasn’t been reached.

May said about three years remain in the study. Then researchers will make proposals to the wildlife department, which will decide whether to initiate hunting season for Cherokee County with a strict bag limit. Wildlife officials don’t want to do anything to hurt the bear population, but would like to see it grow.

That’s exactly what has happened with other animals in this area, said May, who’s been at his job for nearly 30 years.

“In my lifetime, I’ve seen [populations] come back through closed seasons and release efforts,” he said. “Take the river otter. You never saw them when I was a kid, but now we have a season on them, and they’re on every waterway in Oklahoma.”

When May was attending college at NSU in 1981, he remembers seeing wildlife officials releasing river otters in the area from Louisiana and southern Oklahoma.

“They’re almost a nuisance now,” he said. “Same for red fox. We’ve had a closed season throughout the majority of my career, but in the past 10 years, [hunters] can take two a year. You even see them in town.”

Right now, Sequoyah County has the largest bear population in Northeastern Oklahoma, but the animals are beginning to range north on Highway 10. For sportsmen, this is a good sign – and they’re faunching at the bit for a limited hunt.

“Some hunters are really starting to complain about them, because the bears are tearing the heck out of their deer feeders,” May said. “I keep telling them to get bear-smart on how they position their feeders.”

May understands not everyone is receptive to the idea of killing bears, but he pointed out it’s not uncommon to see a bear in Cherokee County these days. Besides, the importance of hunting in Oklahoma can’t be underestimated.

“Hunting is second-largest industry in this state, only behind oil and gas, with a real trickle-down effect,” he said. “Think of all the businesses that depend on sportsmen, and that’s especially true here. You have the hunters and fishers in here with their boats and gear. They buy tackle and other equipment here, and food. Who do you think is renting all these motel rooms? If we didn’t have the opportunities we have here, it would be a big monetary blow to the county.”

May added that every year, the Fish and Wildlife Service releases its economic impact statement.

“When it comes to the hunting and fishing industry, Cherokee County is always right near the top,” he said.


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