Seeing a bear in eastern Oklahoma may make a person rub their eyes in disbelief, but black bears are becoming more common in the area, a good sign the species’ population and habitat are expanding.
This past week a small black bear was spotted loping across a pasture near Fairland and was videotaped by local rancher Charley Noble.
“I had the video sent to me and I notified our wildlife biologists who do the bear emphasis study every year,” Ottawa County Game Warden Jason Adair said.
The population in southeastern Oklahoma is estimated at around 100 bears and the bears are increasing in number up into central and northeastern parts of the state, according to Cookson Wildlife Refuge’s Wildlife Biologist Colby Farquhar.
“That’s a ways from where most of our population is, but the timing is fairly normal because young males are trying to find a home range,” he said. “ Seeing a bear is not something to be afraid of, keep a safe distance and enjoy the opportunity to see an absolutely incredible animal in the state that we have here.”
Farqurah’s study area covers Cherokee, Adair, Sequoyah, Delaware, and Heiskell counties, but he says the bear population in Oklahoma is on the rise and expanding into other counties to the north.
“Historically we would have bears statewide but they were extirpated in the early 1900s,” he said. “Land has been changed so much, and much of it has been deforested. It’s now Bermuda pastures that’s really not suitable to bears.”
Black bears began migrating into southeast Oklahoma in the late 1970s and early ‘80s from Arkansas’s Ouachita and Ozark Mountains after that state’s bear reclamation efforts in the 1950s of a release of 250 bears from northern Minnesota and Canada grew to thousands.
“Pretty much all of the bear population we have in eastern Oklahoma is coming from the natural expansion from that initial reintroduction population,” Farquhar said. “Arkansas has a healthy population. It’s constantly expanding and has really recolonized the state well. Our populations in eastern Oklahoma are still kind of expanding.”
The southeastern portion of Oklahoma is well suited for black bear with denser forested areas and more suitable habitat.
“We have a lot more bears there than we have in the northeastern part of the state. I’m in the Cookson area where we have a three-county ongoing research project,” he said. “There’s a small core area here where there’s a lot of available habitat and when you get out of that you start running into a lot more farmland and habitat that’s not really suitable for bears. With that said, we occasionally have some adult males moving into other areas, typically the expanding front of a population.”
Farquhar explained female bears, called sows, reach sexual maturity at three and a half to four years of age. They will give birth to one to three cubs in a litter usually in early January weighing just ounces.
“The cubs grow pretty rapidly and they’ll typically come out of their den somewhere in mid to late April and at that point those cubs may weigh, I would say, somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 pounds,” he said. “She will keep those cubs with her for a year and a half. They will go back into the den location with her the next fall and winter and when they come out the following spring that’s when she kind of starts to push them away because she’ll be coming back into her breeding cycle at that point.”
“Female cubs typically stay pretty close to where they were born. The males get pushed around. They’re the ones that are typically showing up in areas like the one spotted in your area,” he said. “They’re just a young male, they’re just trying to find a home, available habitat. They’ll occasionally show up in places where you may not expect to find them. They’ll follow habitat corridors, especially along streams where there’s a little bit of timber. They may follow a corridor like that for quite a long ways.”
Farquhar said they have documented bears around Spavinaw, and one not too far from Stillwater.
Black bears natural diet consists of nuts, berries, grasses, insects, eggs, honey, small mammals, and carrion.
According to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife, bears are opportunists and can be attracted by easy food sources such as unsecured garbage or pet food.
Oklahoma black bears females generally weigh an average of 200 pounds and mature males around 340 to 350 pounds.
“ We have had animals that weighed over 500 pounds. We have 500 pound scales for the research, and we’ve had them hit the bottom of that, at that point that’s all we can weigh,” Farquhar said. “Lifespan is going to be variable. Through our initial bear research in Oklahoma started in 2001 and 2002 and there’s a bear that was aged at that time and was marked so we could identify her in the future. I believe the last time she was captured she was 21. That’s a pretty old bear. That’s a good sign.”
The average Oklahoma black bear stands two to three feet high at the shoulder, with coloring varying from black to chocolate brown to a pale cinnamon color.
The Oklahoma bear population was healthy enough that Oklahoma established bear hunting seasons in four southern counties in 2009. Bear season is very limited in Oklahoma.
Black bears have been caught on trail cameras, around deer feeders drawn by the corn.
The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation biologists collect data using bear surveys and research projects using DNA samples and GPS tracking devices and monitors.
“The main projects we have are a project in the southeast that is looking at the population that is now being hunted, and they’re doing a little bit of research on the expanding front that population has. The overall project we have in the northeast is really to get a population estimate. The population we have here is much newer than what we have in the southeast. We gather as much data as we can,” Farquhar said.
Wildlife experts recommend viewing bears from a distance and staying at least 100 yards away from the animals.
“I wouldn’t advise anyone to try to approach a bear. We have never had a documented attack in this state. The likelihood of such occurring unprovoked is extremely slim. The odds of that happening are way, way up there. Even the areas of the country that have huge populations of bear,” Farquhar said. “Don’t approach an animal to try to get a picture. That’s not a good idea with any wildlife, especially a bear, or even raccoons or anything like that, it’s not a good idea to approach a wild animal. It’s best to leave wild animals alone.”
Farquhar advises staying a safe distance away while viewing or photographing bears sighted. He says game trail camera footage is helpful to bear biologists.
“If it’s a verifiable report they can contact myself or really any Wildlife Department employee or Game Warden and we will make note of the sighting,” he said, “Anytime we can get information, especially pictures, from new areas that’s great – it’s good information for us we can put in with all our information on where our bear population is at. We have a bear report and some questions you will get asked that will be sent to our bear coordinators and assimilated out.”