Arkansas Black Bear Reintroduction One Of Most Successful In The World, UA Researcher Says

Thursday, October 26, 2000

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - The Ozark and Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas once teemed with black bears, inspiring tall tales and children's books and earning for the state the nickname "The Bear State." But by 1940, hunters and loggers had cleared the landscape of bears: as few as 25 remained.

Today, however, the bear population in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma numbers 3,000 and continues to grow, thanks to the successful reintroduction of black bears from Minnesota and Manitoba, Canada, says University of Arkansas biology professor Kimberly Smith. This reintroduction - the most successful reintroduction of a bear in the world - has useful information to offer other states or regions struggling to help endangered species populations survive.

Smith will present a talk at the World Ecology Day, sponsored by the International Center for Tropical Ecology at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, on Friday, Oct. 27, where the theme of this year's meeting is meat eaters: predators and their prey. The ICTE was established in 1990 in cooperation with the Missouri Botanical Garden to promote research and education in the biology and conservation of tropical ecosystems. The World Ecology Day symposium is one of the center's premier public events. This year’s program will feature talks by Kay Holekamp, Michigan State University, and Alan Rabinowitz, Wildlife Conservation Society and Smith, who will present the Arkansas black bear research.

During the 1800s, settlers in Arkansas ate bear bacon, warmed their feet on bearskin rugs in front of fires and traded bear grease for other goods. In the early part of the 19th century, Arkansas may have had one of the largest populations of black bears in North America.

As early as the 1840s, Arkansas hunters noted a decrease in the bear population. Bears completely disappeared from Oklahoma in 1915 and from Missouri in 1931. They had disappeared from the Ouachitas in 1910. Due to these declines, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) closed the hunting season on bears in 1927.

Thirty years later, the AGFC had about 40 bears driven down from Minnesota and Canada in pickup trucks. They released the animals at what is now known as the White Rock Mountain Wildlife Management Area, the Piney Creek Wildlife Management Area and the Muddy Creek Wildlife Management Area.

"When the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission started bringing in the Minnesota black bears in 1958, they did almost everything right," Smith said. They released wild-captured, young, native game animals in the core of their historic range. They released the bears at multiple sites in high-quality habitat areas, away from human activity. They released about 260 animals over the course of 11 years, bringing in males first to establish their territories and then introducing females.

Today the bears can be found throughout much of their original range, with small populations re-establishing themselves in Missouri and Oklahoma, Smith said.

Biologists like Smith track the bear populations by capturing, tagging and releasing animals, and by tracking a select few females with radio collars. From this information they can determine the health and reproductive fitness of the bear population as a whole.

"In terms of numbers of animals, the reintroduction has been a total success," Smith, whose research on bears has been funded primarily by the AGFC, said. "The important thing now is that the black bear be accepted as part of the ecosystem."

Many carnivore reintroduction programs have run into opposition from landowners, who fear the animals will interfere with livestock or threaten their children. Others have faced complications because of small, inbred populations. Attempts to bring animals like the wolf back to Montana and to save the Florida panther, for example, have met with limited success.

Smith's findings show that initially low numbers and public opposition should not necessarily discourage people managing reintroduction efforts. He points out that the Arkansas black bear program received very little public input at the time the bears were released. Due to public perception in the 1950s and 60, most people probably would have opposed the reintroduction, Smith said. However, when Arkansas landowners were presented with the successful reintroduction of bears in their area, those surveyed in the late 1980s seemed content with the number of bears present.

The Arkansas black bear population, as it stands now, should remain healthy well into the century, Smith said.

Despite their legendary reputation as fierce creatures, black bears in the Ozarks get most of their nutrients from fruits and seeds of plants and their protein from ants. They are solitary animals and tend to shun people when possible.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time they will run away from a human being," he said. They can become dangerous if people feed them, however.

More than 60 years after shutting down the hunting season for bear, the AGFC opened a limited season in 1980. Bear sightings became more common in the late 1980s and sightings continue to increase annually, suggesting that Arkansas might again become famous for its black bears.

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