OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A new law allows a black bear hunting season to be established in Oklahoma but wildlife officials say that doesn't necessarily mean one will be opened in the near future.
State wildlife biologists may want to wait until a bear research project is completed before making any recommendations about a bear season, said Richard Hatcher, assistant director of the state Wildlife Department. Hatcher said researchers recently requested a five-year study of a group of 200 to 300 black bears in the Ouachita National Forest in southeastern Oklahoma be extended for another year and a half.
Through the study, researchers have learned the black bear population is growing rapidly as a result of low mortality and high birth rates _ two to three cubs per litter.
The bear season would be legal under Senate Bill 1296, which was signed by Gov. Brad Henry on May 9. The law also allows the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission to create trapping and hunting seasons for river otters and mountain lions.
``Just because the governor signs a bill, it doesn't mean there's going to be a season,'' said Joe Hemphill, bear coordinator for the state Wildlife Conservation Department. ``It just means it gives the department authority to have a season one of these years.''
Most black bears in Oklahoma are in the southeastern part of the state, but the creatures can also be found in Cimarron County in the Panhandle and the Ozark Mountains of northeastern Oklahoma. Hemphill said he has never heard of a bear attack in Oklahoma.
Bears that approach human homes because of food smells are usually trapped and released at a different location, Hatcher said. Three bears have been euthanized because they were considered threats, he said.
``They're getting pretty common, and people see them routinely,'' said Mike Virgin, who oversees game wardens in McCurtain County. ``I haven't heard of any here in Oklahoma that's attacked anybody in modern times, but we've had a lot of problems with them breaking into cabins and tearing stuff up.
``I know of several occasions when bear have taken pigs out of their pens. ... A guy I know here was driven away from a deer he'd killed by a bear. It took the deer right away from him.''
Black bears can weigh as much as 600 pounds but most ``nuisance bears'' that approach humans are below 200 pounds.
Choctaw resident Beth Ann Amico, who killed a 500-pound black bear last year in Alaska, said Oklahomans will have to learn new techniques to hunt bears.
``There is nothing that gets your blood pumping more than a big animal coming at you that could possibly eat you,'' said Amico, a member of the Oklahoma Station Safari Club International.
But Hatcher said bear hunting could be few years away. In the meantime, Hatcher said the Wildlife Department would likely recommend year-round hunting for mountain lions and a limited season for otter trapping from Dec. 1 to Jan. 31 during the state furbearers' season.
Wildlife officials believe the mountain lion population in Oklahoma is minimal. Hatcher said the Wildlife Department will propose a policy where a mountain lion can be killed any time of the year but must be reported to state wildlife authorities.
Texas has a similar mountain lion policy.