THE BEAR NECESSITIES: It's been a busy spring for Oklahoma's black bears
It's the mating season for Oklahoma's black bears, and they have been on the move.
“It's been an active spring up to this point for them moving around,” said Joe Hemphill, southeast region wildlife supervisor for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conversation. “It's been unusually active.”
As black bears emerge from their dens in the spring, they become active, especially in the months of June and July, Hemphill said. Female bears normally stay close to their home, but young male bears will start wandering far and wide in search of adventure, he said.
“A couple of weeks ago we had a bear in Bryan County that was venturing into Sherman and Denison,” Hemphill said. “Texas was tickled to death to have a bear, but they were not tickled to death to have it in downtown Sherman and Denison.”
“The day after that, we had a bear in downtown Tushka, and the very same day we had a bear crossing Highway 43 in downtown Stringtown. And that is the same week one was run over in Texas County.”
The Texas County bear was likely from New Mexico, Hemphill said. Last week, a young male bear was killed near Roland while trying to cross Interstate 40, and another was struck by a motorist near Big Cedar, south of Heavener.
The largest population of Oklahoma's black bears reside in southeast Oklahoma. There is a small population now living in northeastern Oklahoma.
Hemphill is unsure why there have been more bear sightings in the state this year.
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“Part of it may be we just have more bears out there roaming around than we did,” he said. “Maybe Arkansas pushed a bunch more this direction.”
No one is sure what the black bear population is in Oklahoma, but researchers from Oklahoma State University are nearing completion of a three-year study on bears.
Hemphill said seeing a black bear in Oklahoma is still a rare occurrence, but no one should be shocked by it anymore.
“We have a good population of bears. What that number is, I don't think anybody wants to give you a good solid guess on that, but it's a good number,” he said.
Encountering a black bear is a real possibility in the spring and summer in Oklahoma, even for folks not living in bear country.
“We've got bears roaming around way in the western part of southeast Oklahoma. We know they have crossed I-35 this year. We know they crossed I-35 last year. I got a call from a game warden who had one up a tree in Wayne. Once we got all the folks away from it, it came down and went further west. The next day it was 2 miles west of I-35 in a wheat field.”
Most of the wayward bears are young males who will eventually return home unless something happens to them, Hemphill said.
“When they come off of these east and west mountain ranges, they are typically going to continue west until they run out of food or run out of curiosity or whatever. Whether it is I-40 or I-35 or whatever it is they don't like that turns them around and brings them back, yeah, there is a chance you could see a bear in those places,” he said.
“When they run out of the habitat they like or get into too many people, they will turn around and come back. They don't go south and cross the Red River because Texas doesn't have any (bear habitat), so they just turn around and come back.”
Bears are opportunists and can be attracted by easy food sources provided by people, such as unsecured garbage or pet food left outdoors. The black bear's natural diet includes nuts, berries, grasses, insects, eggs, honey, small mammals and carrion.
Even though bears are roaming farther from southeast Oklahoma, they haven't caused many problems, Hemphill said.
“We really haven't had reports of damage,” he said. “They have plenty to eat. They are just being seen and being pesky. Not any big issues.”
If you see a black bear, the best thing to do is just leave it alone, Hemphill said.
“Don't mess with it. Don't shoot it. Don't antagonize it. Just leave it alone,” he said. “Make some racket. Make some noise. If you got dog food and bird feeders, they will hang out and eat. Get rid of the food source, and they will be gone.”
Hemphill said he is no longer surprised when a black bear shows up somewhere they are not expected in Oklahoma.
“When it comes to bears, it's going to be hard to surprise me anymore,” he said. “They are going to go where they want to, and people are lucky to see them, in my opinion. Some people think it is unfortunate to see them, but I think it is pretty cool to have a bear in your area.”