Black bears can generally be found almost anywhere that has extensive forests, so while searching for a current distribution map, I was surprised to see there are many states that have forest, but apparently do not have bears.
Black bear populations like white-tailed deer, have increased dramatically in some very populated states such as New Jersey, in the past 20 years and are also moving back into areas where they have not been seen for many years.
Why Use such Old Black Bear Population Data?
A highly ranked internet website lists the current populations of black bears that were “…extirpated or nearly so in approximately 15 states which they originally inhabited”, but they show data for only 14 states with populations listed as “extinct” or very low (less than 150). The problem is, the “recent” data that is cited is from 1993. Another highly ranked website about black bears even cites population data as old as 1982.
The U.S human population was 231,664,458 in 1982 and 257,746,103 in 1993 and is estimated at 316,030,000 today (U.S. Census Bureau), so how can black bear population data 20-30 years old still be useful? And why is there no new population data?
Twenty years is a long time and things have changed; Human population and development have increased and land use and the age and forest structure has changed. Is it still true that black bears are extirpated in states like Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska? Are black bears extirpated from these other states now, or have populations started to recover in those states?
I spent a few hours and went to each of the 14 state wildlife agency websites that had “extinct” or very low populations in 1993 to see if they have updated any of the black bear population data. The information I found, is presented in Table 1 below. The data shown in the 1993 Population Estimate Column is from the Great Bear Almanac by Gary Brown (1993) and the Current Population is new data I was able to find.
Table 1. Comparison of Black Bear Populations in 1993 and 2013.
|Alabama||50||Less than 50|
|Delaware||extinct||Likely still extirpated|
|Illinois||extinct||Still listed as extirpated|
*Current Population Estimates were gleaned from each state’s wildlife agency websites or documents and are cited below with the most recent year associated with that data.
- Alabama – According to the Alabama Department of Conservation, Black Bears are a Priority 1 Species in Alabama. Black bear populations are restricted to portions of Baldwin, Clarke, Mobile, and Washington counties (146 square miles) and number less than 50 (http://www.aces.edu/forestry/awdm/mammals/blackbear.php).
- Connecticut – According to Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection as quoted in the CT Mirror in 2012 (http://www.ctmirror.org/story/bears-rise-connecticut), “…several hundred black bears live in Connecticut, and the population is expected to double every five to seven years”. The Population is increasing – over 2,660 sightings in 10 months (Apr 2012- Feb 2013) (http://www.depdata.ct.gov/wildlife/sighting/bearsight.asp).
- Delaware – The Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife does not mention bears on their website. Black bears are known to raid campers along Delaware River in N.J.
- Illinois – An Illinois Department of Natural Resources document (http://www.dnr.illinois.gov/oi/documents/oct07blackbears.pdf). Black bears may be listed as extirpated, but with 178,000 acres of suitable habitat in southern Illinois and with bears breeding across the Mississippi river in Missouri, only a matter of time until bears are re-established.
- Iowa – An Iowa Division of Natural Resources 2010 document (http://www.iowadnr.gov/Portals/idnr/uploads/Hunting/2010_logbook.pdf) Regular sightings since 2000, especially in north east Iowa, but no known breeding population. Black bears have no legal status in Iowa.
- Kansas – No information was found about black bears at Kansas Dept. of Wildlife and Parks website. But there have been a few regular sightings the last few years and neighboring states; Arkansas and Oklahoma have breeding populations of black bears.
- Mississippi – Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks; 2007 population estimate at 60 in this document ( http://www.mdwfp.com/media/7778/ factfiction.pdf?iframe). Current website lists black bear population as “MDWFP biologists currently estimate the Mississippi bear population at 40 to 50 bears in the entire state and that’s being generous” (http://www.mdwfp.com/wildlife-hunting/black-bear-program/black-bears-in-ms.aspx) A third estimate seems to indicate black bear populations as high as 100; “At the time of the program’s inception , it was estimated that there were less than 50 bears residing in the state. Today, estimates of our bear population have more than doubled” (http://www.mdwfp.com/wildlife-hunting/black-bear-program.aspx)Most black bears in Mississippi are near the Pearl and Pascagoula River systems.
- Missouri – In 2003, the Missouri Dept. of Conservation estimated black bear populations at 300. In 2013, the population estimate from the 2011 and 2012 black bear project using radio collar data and hair traps puts the population estimate at 225. Most of the bears are in 10 counties in south-central Missouri.
- Nebraska – Nebraska Game and Parks has documented sighting in 2000 & 2002 – and state “Expect sporadic sighting in the western part of the state”.
- North Dakota – According to the North Dakota Dept. of Fish & Game “Black bears are conspicuous visitors to North Dakota” (in north central and northeastern parts of N.D.)
- Ohio – The Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources website estimates black bear population at 50-100 (http://www.dnr.state.oh.us/Home/wild_resourcessubhomepage/blackbearsinohio/tabid/24058/Default.aspx), but do not give a date of the population estimate, so the population estimate is assumed to be current.
- Rhode Island – No new population estimate, but Rhode Island Dept. of Environmental Management states “With neighboring states having established populations of black bear, Rhode Island now has black bears within its borders.” The Black Bear Society estimates 10 black bears in Rhode Island, but do not cite the source or time of the estimate.
- South Dakota – In 2010, the South Dakota Dept of Game, Fish & Parks stated “the black bear population in the Black Hills has been and currently is extremely low”.
- Texas – Texas Parks and Wildlife published 2005-2015 East Texas Black Bear Management Plan (http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/publications/pwdpubs/media/pwd_pl_w7000_1046.pdf) – sightings at 3 locations since 2000, but admit “Other than gathering of data concerning sightings of black bears within East Texas, there has been no formal survey work done to confirm black bear occurrence within the region”. With no formal survey work, there is no chance of a population estimate. Funny, that they take the time and spend the money to write a management plan, then do nothing else. Sounds like one of those government jobs to me. If not the responsibility of Texas Parks and Wildlife, then who?
Bear Photo Credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/ianjmatchett/