By Mark Davis, Powell Tribune Via Wyoming News Exchange
POWELL — With the help of an organization of hunters, Wyoming Game and Fish officials are attempting to do something they’ve never done before: count black bears.
While department biologists know the species has steadily increased in number, they can’t say how many black bears actually reside in the state. Previously, population trends have been calculated primarily on harvest data. That’s about to change.
A new study, funded in part by the Western Bear Foundation, should soon result in more accurate local population estimates, leading to a better understanding on how to best approach conservation of the species, said Dan Thompson, the department’s large carnivore supervisor.
“The study is going to help our understanding of black bears. But it’s hard to just go out and count them,” Thompson said.
Biologists for the department are systematically heading into black bear habitat across the state, including the Big Horn Basin. They’re collaring individuals to watch their movement, constructing hair snare traps in dozens of grids and analyzing bears’ DNA — all to increase knowledge of the species and their density. The project will ultimately take years to complete, but the Game and Fish is well on its way.
Large carnivore biologist Ryan Kindermann is heading up much of the population estimate research. He’s already worked on studies in the Greys River and Sierra Madre ranges and this year he led the effort to trap 19 black bears in the Bighorn Mountains, attaching collars on 14 of the animals. It was the most black bears successfully trapped in the three areas so far. The collars will stay on the bears for two years before automatically dropping off and being collected by biologists. Collars cost about $3,000 each, but can be reused, Kindermann said.
It’s a story of two bears in the state. While grizzly bears have been one of the most studied wildlife species on the planet — becoming a political football and capturing the attention of many wildlife enthusiasts — interest, scientific knowledge and funds available for black bear conservation studies are relatively limited. The department has studied the species, Thompson said. Yet, their density remains a mystery.
There were no protestors in attendance as Game and Fish large carnivore experts held a public meeting about their plans in Cody last week. There were no gasps as team members revealed statistics showing hunter’s harvests of black bears have gone up more than 300% in the past two decades.