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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Wildlife Scientists Unveil New Black Bear Population Study

ALBUQUERQUE -- New Mexico's reclusive black bears number about 6,000 and new evidence has convinced scientists that a substantial portion of the bear's population and habitat are within a few miles of humans, wildlife researchers said.

The findings, described Friday morning in an eight-year study of black bear ecology for the New Mexico State Game Commission by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, could prompt a rethinking of black bear conservation strategies, which have long been premised on less than optimal or current data.

Researchers found that the black bear's range still follows a historical path, and that the population is larger than originally estimated. New estimates put the population at between 5,200 and 6,000, well ahead of earlier estimates of about 3,000.

"This doesn't mean the bear population doubled or anything like that," stressed Bruce Thompson, one of the study's authors and a wildlife biologist at New Mexico State University's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit in Las Cruces. It simply means that through this research scientists have much better information on population characteristics, habitat and distribution.

"We now have the first definitive research on black bears in New Mexico," Thompson said. A key result of the research effort is the creation of a new set of scientific tools, particularly in terms of modeling for the Department of Game and Fish, he said.

With population and habitat modeling, scientists can play out what-if scenarios for regulatory decisions. They can look into the future and consider different management models. Results of the study also are expected to be valuable in setting hunt seasons and other management practices where different components of the population can be targeted.

Led by Cecily Costello, a wildlife specialist at the Hornocker Wildlife Institute in Bozeman, Mont., the team of federal, state and university scientists verified that black bears in New Mexico generally are distributed in the state's higher elevations, especially in forested regions. The predicted habitat is about 13.5 percent of the state's surface area.

Results were based on capturing and individually marking more than 300 black bears throughout New Mexico, primarily in two study areas in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Mogollon Mountains. The bears were equipped with radio transmitters and monitored for several years. Among the data taken were birth rates, litter sizes and survival. Other aspects of the study centered on entry and emergence dates from dens.

The black bear study began in 1992 under the direction of the Department of Game and Fish and the Hornocker Wildlife Institute. In following years, an Albuquerque-based consulting research program and the New Mexico Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at NMSU joined the study.

"We've developed some predictions of where black bear habitat is in close proximity to human populations," Thompson said. "Not surprisingly, we found that a substantial portion of black bear population and habitat occurs within a matter of a few miles from areas we know from census data are populated by humans. That isn't going to diminish."

A shortage of berries and other foods in the mountains has been blamed for an unusual number of bear sightings and encounters this summer across New Mexico. But given the degree of human proximity to black bears, there are relatively few contacts with the state's official animal.

"It's unfortunate that in 2001 we've had some dramatic encounters, including one death," he said. "Nothing about this study is going to change the possibility of something like that occurring. It's a rare event, but something that can be expected where humans come into contact with a variety of wildlife species."

Earlier this summer, black bears wandered into residential areas and barged into homes around the state, searching for food. In one case an elderly woman was killed by a bear at her home near Mora. On the other hand, bear experts note that many people still don't understand the importance of keeping garbage and human foods away from bears.

Once habituated, a bear will rarely break the mooching habit and inevitably becomes a nuisance. At that point, there are few options, because moving the bear is frequently not a long-term solution.