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Web exclusive: Black bears continue to thrive in Montana

by Parks & Wildlife
| April 7, 2009 12:00 AM

The American black bear is a distant cousin to the grizzly bear, and remains a revered game animal in Montana.

Several factors have allowed the black bear to thrive while grizzly bear populations declined in Montana and elsewhere.

Unlike most large carnivores, black bears are uniquely able to thrive in the presence of humans. They are adaptable and curious, occupying approximately 45 percent of western and west-central Montana.

Black bear hunting has long been a tradition in Montana. An average of 1,000 black bears are harvested in Montana annually, with more than 50 percent of the bear harvest occurring in FWP's Region 1 in northwestern Montana.

One of the challenges biologists face in managing black bears, a long-lived game species, is that the age structure of the population can shift in ways that are subtle and sometimes difficult to perceive over time.

To learn more about Montana's black bear population a study headed by FWP wildlife biologist Rick Mace is underway.

"The study will estimate bear population size and harvest rate using DNA hair snares placed in eight Bear Management Units and three Hunting Districts," said       Tonya Chilton, FWP wildlife research technician assisting with the research. "The information gained from the study will help document Montana's black bear populations and evaluate black bear harvest strategies."

While both grizzly and black bears can be found occupying the same landscape, black bears generally prefer the security of heavy timber and canopied forests over open shrubfields, except when abundant berry production draws them out.

All bears are strongly driven by food consumption and females have the challenge of raising and caring for young too. Last year's exceptional huckleberry and berry crops should translate into some healthy bear cubs this spring.

Black bears are omnivorous, as humans are, but their diets vary in response to the natural foods available. This "foraging strategy" helps make the black bear good at locating wild food sources and it can often lead them into trouble when they locate human foods.

The proximity of bears to people will not necessarily lead to a conflict as long as humans secure all potential bear attractants. The root of most human-bear conflicts is the availability of human foods to the bears. Making efforts to secure these attractants can be very effective at preventing a potential conflict and will help keep Montana's black bears out of trouble.   

(Kim Annis is a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife biologist in Libby).