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Wyo Game and Fish Uses DNA Technology To Count Black Bears

in Wyoming Game and Fish/News

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is employing crime-solving technology to count the black bears in the state.

Using DNA analysis of hair samples gathered from “snares” located in strategic spots in several Wyoming mountain ranges, Game and Fish researchers are  able to determine how many individual black bears inhabit each region, which allows the department to better manage the species.

Dan Bjornlie is a large carnivore biologist for the department and the full-time biologist in charge of bear population monitoring work. 

Bjornlie told Cowboy State Daily that researchers have been trying for over a decade to set up a project which will allow for baseline population monitoring for large carnivores of all kinds.

“We’ve already got a pretty robust grizzly bear and wolf monitoring program going on right now,” Bjornlie said. “But we didn’t really have much for black bears and mountain lions. So I’ve been pushing for trying to get some black bear monitoring going on since probably 2010.”

Bjornlie said that DNA “hair snare” population monitoring work for bears is widely used now, in part because the process is not very labor intensive compared to some other methods available.

“The hair snares are actually a little corral that we set up,” he said. “It’s a ring of barbed wire that we put around some trees, a circle or a square of 20 feet by 20 feet or so. We put the wire about knee high off the ground, and we put some scent in the middle. It’s not a bait or anything, a bear doesn’t get a reward for coming into it, but it’s a curious smell. 

“And then when bears come by, they smell it and they cross that barbed wire to go in and investigate that smell,” he continued. “And when they do, the bear’s hair gets snagged on the wires, then we go out and we collect the hair from those barbs once a week and put them in little sample envelopes. And at the end of the season, we send them into a lab.”

Bjornlie said the lab can distinguish between individual bears by the hair samples if enough of a root is left on the hairs.

“And then they can tell us how many individual bears … are detected from all those different hair samples that we collected through the summer,” he said. “And so with that, we can take the information on how many individuals we caught and the location and the time where they were detected. And that gives us some spatial information that can get us an idea of density and abundance for that population.”

Bjornlie said the department started the project in 2015 in the Greys River area of the Wyoming Range on the western side of the state – first doing radio collar work, then following up with hair snares. 

In 2018, the department set up collection sites in the Sierra Madres, and has been able to determine the health of the black bear populations in those two areas.

“The Grays River area was a little bit lower than we thought it was originally,” Bjornlie said, “and I think it was six or seven bears per 100 square kilometers.”

He reported that given the levels of precipitation in the area, the Game and Fish Department expected population densities to be higher than what they found – so researchers used that information to slightly reduce the harvest limit in the Grays River for a while, letting that population bounce back a little bit from some of the hunting pressure.

“But then the next one we did, in the Sierra Madres, we found that the densities and the abundance were actually a little bit higher than what we would expect,” Bjornlie said. “And so with that information, during the season setting process, we were able to increase the harvest limits in the Sierra Madres a little bit to allow more hunter opportunities, because the population was actually doing quite well and the density soared a little higher than we thought they’d be.”

Bjornlie said the department this summer set up collection sites in the Big Horn Mountains, but it hasn’t received results from the lab yet. When that happens, though, he said that the department will be able to directly apply their findings.

“We’re able to go in the next season setting cycle for black bear hunting seasons and say, based on our information, densities are about this, which means the abundance should be about this,” he explained. “And therefore, we’re taking whatever percentage of the population during the hunting season, and can adjust it to something that’s sustainable, but still allows good hunter opportunity.”

Bjornlie added that the project is relatively inexpensive, compared to other monitoring systems the department has used.

“We’re able to do most of the fieldwork itself with just a crew leader and then one technician, and a little bit of help from some of our other folks here and there,” he said. “And it was actually pretty easy for two technicians to cover the entire Sierra Madre area through the whole summer, and those people are people that we normally have on staff anyway.”

The only cost increase to speak of, according to Bjornlie, is the lab costs, and those – depending on the number of samples – can range from $15,000 to $30,000.

“When you compare that to the amount of money that’s spent on some of our big game monitoring, it’s a drop in the bucket,” he said.

Bjornlie noted that the next project will be in the Laramie Range this summer.

“This is one area that we’ve been getting a lot of interest in from the Casper and Laramie regional folks, because it’s a really tough area to get a handle on for black bears,” he said. “There’s actually a pretty robust black bear population in there, and we’ve really struggled with how to monitor this area in the past and what limits we should set for hunting seasons. It’s also got a lot of private lands, so it’s kind of hard for us to access to do some of our more traditional monitoring work.”

Bjornlie noted that this type of monitoring works well for black bears, but hasn’t been put into wide use for grizzlies.

“We already have an alternative monitoring protocol that has been established for decades,” he said. “That involves observations of females with cubs of the year, and expands that into an estimate for the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear population. 

“But the other problem has always been, it’s just a really large area, and it’s a really remote area,” he continued. “And so the logistics of doing it would be substantially greater than any of these smaller black bear projects that we’re working on. We’d cover a huge area, some of it would require backcountry work that would involve people on horseback for weeks at a time, so it would require a much larger crew – multi state, multi-jurisdictional coordination, all that kind of thing. So we just haven’t quite got there yet.”

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Glacier National Park Staff Kills Food-Conditioned Black Bear

in News/wildlife

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

An adult female black bear was killed this week by Glacier National Park staff after it became conditioned to human foods.

The bear was killed Thursday after multiple incidents of it eating human food and not showing fear of humans.

On Aug. 28, the black bear was reported moving through the Many Glacier Campground and was not readily responsive to attempts to move it out of campsites. 

On Aug. 29, the bear returned and was observed snatching apples out of an open trunk while visitors were nearby packing their vehicle. The bear then proceeded to eat the apples at the campsite, exhibiting little fear of humans.

While park staff attempted to verbally drive the bear out of the campground, the bear tried to stop at another campsite where people were preparing breakfast and after being driven out into the woods, returned half an hour later. 

On Wednesday, the adult female bear was trapped in a culvert trap near the Many Glacier housing area. 

Based on photographs and visitor reports, it is possible this could be the same bear that was approaching people and exhibiting unusual behavior near Grinnell Lake last week, resulting in closure of the Grinnell Lake trail on Aug. 25. DNA samples collected from both sites will be tested and compared to determine if the same animal was involved in both incidents. 

Many Glacier Campground recently restricted campers to hard-sided vehicles due to the presence of the bear. The campground is now open to all camper types again, including tents.

In accordance with Glacier National Park’s Bear Management Plan, and in consultation with park wildlife biologists, the bear was killed.

The bear was estimated to be around four-years old and approximately 120 pounds. A field necropsy revealed it to be in otherwise healthy condition.

Food-conditioned bears are those that have sought and obtained non-natural foods, destroyed property, or displayed aggressive, non-defensive behavior towards humans and are removed from the wild. Given this bear’s behavior and successful acquisition of human foods the decision was made to remove the animal from the park. Once a bear has become food-conditioned, hazing and aversive conditioning are unlikely to be successful in reversing this type of behavior. Food-conditioned bears are not relocated due to human safety concerns. 

Black bears are not good candidates for animal capture facilities such as zoos and animal parks due to the plentiful nature of the species throughout the United States.

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Black Bear Killed After Breaking Into Montana Home

in News/Bears

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A young female black bear was killed last week after it broke into a Montana home looking for food, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials.

Despite the Red Lodge homeowners’ efforts to bear-proof their property, the bear was able to pry open a window and enter the house on June 23. No one was at home when the bear let itself in.

When the homeowners returned, they called Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials, who trapped and euthanized the bear.

When bears enter homes, FWP will kill them if possible, as this type of bear behavior is dangerous to humans and is unnatural for bears.

Red Lodge-area residents have reported seeing other bears around town and in adjacent subdivisions and ranches. FWP bear specialists expect the lack of spring moisture could affect berry crops, leading both black and grizzly bears to seek out easy food sources near homes.

If those bears find nothing to eat around homes and businesses, they will move elsewhere.

The incident serves as a reminder to people who live in bear country to take every opportunity to bear-proof their properties, which includes putting all trash in bear-proof containers and keeping all property free of anything that can attract bears who are looking for food, the officials said.

Residents can avoid bear conflicts by storing all garbage cans in a locked building until immediately before garbage trucks arrive, storing barbecue grills, pet food, horse pellets and livestock feed in a locked building.

Home and business owners can remove all bird feeders and clean up apples, berries and other potential food sources.

Bear-proofing also includes thoroughly cleaning decks and patios around barbecue areas to remove odors from previous cooking.

The incident occurred not long after Grand Teton National Park officials moved a grizzly bear to a new spot in the park because it received food from humans over a two-day period.

Park spokewoman Denise Germann told Cowboy State Daily on Friday that the decision was made to relocate the bear to try and break the cycle it had developed of approaching humans in hopes of some kind of food reward.

She added that it was irresponsible for people to feed grizzlies, either directly or indirectly.

“When people take these actions, there are consequences, many of which are for the bear, who can either be relocated or removed,” Germann said. “It’s an awesome opportunity to come to the park and see a bear in the wild, but we also have to be good stewards of the land, which includes not feeding wildlife.”

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