Oklahoma's Black Bear Research Project Ends After 23 Years Of Studying The Animals

Deep in the hills of Cherokee County, among the rocky bluffs and tall oaks, is the perfect place for black bears to call home.

Thursday, May 2nd 2024, 6:23 pm

A nearly 25-year research project taking an in-depth look at Oklahoma's black bears has come to an end.

Since 2001, Oklahoma State University researchers have been studying bear habitats, where they travel, barriers in their way and where they might expand next.

Deep in the hills of Cherokee County, among the rocky bluffs and tall oaks, is the perfect place for black bears to call home.

A den on the Cookson Wildlife Management Area is where momma bear, Graci, and her two yearling cubs spent the winter.

News On 6 got an exclusive look as OSU PhD students, Courtney Dotterweich and Jacob Humm, bravely climbed into the cave for their final day of fieldwork research.

"They don’t use words, but they speak volumes with their body language. So you get an idea of when it’s safe, what to do and take comfort in your own expertise," Dotterweich said.

The team went in armed with anesthesia, to put the bears to sleep first, with important work to follow. They took blood work from the young bears, put in ear tags and tattooed an identification number to their upper lips.

"We give bears two ear tags, that’s just for redundancy in case they lose one and the upper lip tattoo is also for identification, so it we ever recapture that bear or it’s seen on camera, that bear will hopefully be able to give us a clear shot of those numbers and then somebody can say, 'Hey I saw a bear with yellow ear tags, it was number 183.’ And we can look up in our system know the bear was the cub of Gracie and she’s traveled from this den site to wherever the photos were taken and that can give us an idea of how they’re moving, where they’re at and that sort of thing," Dotterweich said.

And for mom, Graci, researchers took off the GPS collar she's been wearing for more than a decade, signaling the end of a research project between OSU and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation that started 23 years ago.

"In the moment it was just like another day’s work, but when I got it out of the den… I was like ‘holy crap, this is really happening. This is the end," Humm said.

Graci is one of the longest-studied bears in the state. Her den selection has come a long way from the first time News On 6's Tess Maune met her with two different cubs, on a research project almost 10 years ago. That time, she had carved out a den on the side of a hill to hibernate with her babies.

"We’ve tracked their movements for so long now, we’ve seen them establish home ranges, have conflicts with other bears and it’s like watching a child grow up," said Humm. "It's kind of bittersweet."

Earlier in the spring, researchers also removed a collar from Oklahoma's oldest known bear, 27-year-old Bertha.

"Every time I see her, I just say “You go girl, you got this. You’re just the queen out here,” Dotterweich said. "Removing that collar, I just realized, 'You’re free. You’ve been wearing this for a long time. You are free and you get to live out the rest of your days as a free bear. This is what you deserve.'"

The number of black bears in Oklahoma has been growing for decades. They've made their way here from our neighbors to the east after Arkansas reintroduced them in the 1950s and 60s.

"This is one of the more successful carnivore reintroduction programs in U.S. history," Dotterweich said.

The population has grown from the Ouachita Mountains in southeastern Oklahoma, up through parts of east central and northeastern Oklahoma.

Oklahoma's population is slow-growing, said ODWC Sr. Wildlife Biologist Curt Allen.

"The males lead the push on the expanding and the female numbers don’t really fill in until later on," Allen said. "I’m really hopeful that the data gained off it will be able the help us with future bear management decisions."

Researchers have learned, that for the population to grow, black bears need large swaths of forest. Things like highways, towns, and agriculture are barriers for their expansion. But experts say some still could show up to explore parts of the metro.

"They can disperse very far distances when they want to," said Humm.

But researchers said because the habitat farther west is not the greatest for bears, it's unlikely they'll ever permanently move into areas close to Tulsa, opting instead for the picturesque hills and secluded spaces far outside of the city.

And while this research project has come to an end, Humm said there are still many more questions that need to be answered.

"If we want to see this population continue to grow, there will need to be continued effort to monitor and research,' said Humm. 

Once the researchers collected all the data and samples they needed from the bears, they said their final goodbyes and not long after they walked away, Graci and her little ones woke up, not knowing the impact they'd made on one of the state's longest-running research projects.


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