Mississippi State, MU scientists search for black bears in Missouri

Saturday, December 3, 2011 | 4:14 p.m. CST

STARKVILLE, Miss. — Mississippi State University scientists have been on a bear hunt in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri.

They're using hair snares and culvert traps to get a handle on the number of black bears in the Ozarks and refining their techniques for a home-state black bear census.

They also want to learn how bears roam within their home ranges and colonize unoccupied habitats.

A study by scientists in the MSU Forest and Wildlife Research Center in the late 1990s indicated more than 70 percent of Mississippi residents favored increasing the black bear population. The big question is, what's the starting number?

"We clearly have black bears in Mississippi, but we do not know how many," said study leader Jerrold Belant, associate professor of wildlife ecology and management in MSU's Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture. "Missouri has a similar situation, with even more black bear sightings and reports than Mississippi, but no one has a good population estimate."

He said about 380 hair snares — a strand of barbed wire tied around a small triangle of trees at the right height to snag a bit of belly fur — were baited with fish oil or other scents and checked every 10 days over the summer. Site choices were based on 20 years of bear sighting reports in southern Missouri.

Motion-activated cameras at some snares help assess how effective the snares are.

MU is analyzing the DNA to find out how many bears entered the snares.

Biologists also used doughnuts to bait about 25 steel culvert or barrel traps with drop doors that hold the bears until they can be fitted with GPS collars and released.

"Thus far, the research crew has caught and released 49 bears. Thirty of them have been equipped with GPS collars," Belant said. "The GPS collars allow us to track the bears and better understand their home range."

The Missouri Black Bear Project — a collaboration between the MSU Forest and Wildlife Research Center, MU, the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Safari Club International Foundation — will be completed next year.

While the project is in its early stages, preliminary results indicate the bear population is not as big as Missouri authorities thought. The study also has revealed similarities between the Mississippi and Missouri populations.

Bears were once abundant in the South, but populations are diminishing from hunting and land development. Scientists suspect that most bears now in Missouri and Mississippi wandered in from restoration efforts in neighboring Arkansas and Louisiana. Arkansas has an estimated bear population of 3,500, while Louisiana's population is estimated at 300.

In addition to the Missouri study, graduate students have been studying black bears in Mississippi since 2009.

"There are no official estimates of the number of black bears in Mississippi," Belant said. "However, in early 2011, graduate students identified six females with cubs."

This, along with the recent increase in bear sightings, suggests the population in Mississippi is growing. Most bears are in the Mississippi Delta region and the extreme southeastern portion of the state, Belant said.

"Improving our methods to estimate populations and understanding the bears' use of habitat will further strengthen our ability to effectively manage black bears in Mississippi," he said.

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