October 1 is the day Oklahoma hunters have been counting down to since January - opening day of archery season for deer. But while getting ready for bow season, some hunters have been running into trouble with bears for the first time.
A big buck is what most Oklahoma hunters hope to see on their trail cameras, but this year, in northeastern Oklahoma, black bears have been stealing the show.
“It's really fun to be able to see bears in the environment here. They were here historically,” Oklahoma Wildlife Department Northeast Regional Coordinator Craig Endicott said.
Endicott said Oklahoma's bear population started growing years ago after a restocking effort by the state. They're coming in from Arkansas. The largest population is in southeastern Oklahoma, but the number up north is growing.
“They're just moving over into available habitat here in Oklahoma,” Endicott said.
As bears look for a place to settle in, they're also looking for food - and what better place to find it than a deer feeder?
“Bears love corn, so they've been visiting those corn feeders quite a bit,” said Endicott.
Many hunters have used the Wildlife Department's Facebook page to post pictures and videos showing bears, indeed, are enjoying the free food.
Some appreciate the sightings, but others, like Shane Robinson down in Sequoyah County, consider black bears a nuisance. Pictures Robinson posted show where the bear destroyed his feeder and he asked, “How about relocating this nuisance for me?”
Endicott said the Wildlife Department only relocates bears that make their way into town and into neighborhoods. He said those who put out feeders just have to know unwanted guests might show up to eat.
“Deer feeders feed all kinds of wildlife,” Endicott said. “It's pretty hard to bear-proof a feeder because they're very smart and very strong. Unless it's basically a steel container and it's concreted into the ground, they're gonna be able to get in it.”
Endicott said fencing off the feeder with electric wire sometimes helps, and hanging feeders from a tree is also an option, but even that is risky.
“They're pretty smart. They figure things out and they'll climb up there and pull the cables around and jostle it around and sometimes get it down,” he said.
Endicott also urges folks to put feeders several hundred yards away from your home.
“Once they get accustomed to coming to your house for food, then that's when a lot of the problems start right then, because they don't understand when there's nobody there to feed them,” he said.
At one time Endicott said it was estimated 1,500 bears called Oklahoma home in the southeast, but the number has likely grown. The Wildlife Department and Oklahoma State University researchers are working on two studies to update that number and the growing bear population in the northeast.
“We've caught 44 bears in five years here in the northeast part of the state in our research project; and in that time we've worked 15 dens and we've handled 29 cubs,” Endicott said.
With the proper tag, it is legal to hunt bears in Oklahoma, but only in four southeastern counties - Latimer, Leflore, McCurtain and Pushmataha. 233 bears have been checked in by hunters since bear hunting became legal in Oklahoma six years ago.
Endicott said, depending on what the research reveals, bear hunting could eventually open in some northeastern counties.
“We'll make recommendations this next summer on whether we think we need a season up here or not,” he said.
But until then, the areas where hunting is not allowed will just have to learn to live with the new visitors.
“We ought to just enjoy seeing them. If they're causing you any real problem, give us a call and we'll look into it,” Endicott said.