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Estimates of abundance and harvest rates of female black bears across a large spatial extent

August 10, 2021

American black bears (Ursus americanus) are an iconic wildlife species in the southern Appalachian highlands of the eastern United States and have increased in number and range since the early 1980s. Given an increasing number of human-bear conflicts in the region, many management agencies have liberalized harvest regulations to reduce bear populations to socially acceptable levels. Wildlife managers need reliable population data for assessing the effects of management actions for this high-profile species. Our goal was to use DNA extracted from hair collected at barbed-wire enclosures (i.e., hair traps) to identify individual bears and then use spatially explicit capture-recapture methods to estimate female black bear density, abundance, and harvest rate. We established 888 hair traps across 66,678 km2 of the southern Appalachian highlands in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee, USA, in 2017 and 2018, arranged in 174 clusters of 2–9 traps/cluster. We collected 9,113 hair samples from those sites over 6 weeks of sampling, of which 1,954 were successfully genotyped to 462 individual female bears. Our spatially explicit estimator included a percent forest covariate to explain inhomogeneous bear density across the region. Densities ranged up to 0.410 female bears/km2 and regional abundance was 5,950 (95% CI = 4,988–7,098) female bears. Based on hunter kill data from 2016 to 2018, mean annual harvest rates for females were 12.7% in Georgia, 17.6% in North Carolina, 17.6% in South Carolina, and 22.8% in Tennessee. Our estimated harvest rates for most states approached or exceeded theoretical maximum sustainable levels, and population trend data (i.e., bait-station indices) indicated decreasing growth rates since about 2009. These data suggest that the increased harvest goals and poor hard mast production over a series of prior years reduced bear population abundance in many states. We were able to obtain reasonable population abundance and density estimates because of spatially explicit capture-recapture methods, cluster sampling, and a large spatial extent. Continued monitoring of bear populations (e.g., annual bait-station surveys and periodic population estimation using spatially explicit methods) by state jurisdictions would help to ensure that population trajectories are consistent with management goals. © 2021 The Wildlife Society.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2021
Title Estimates of abundance and harvest rates of female black bears across a large spatial extent
DOI 10.1002/jwmg.22104
Authors Jacob Humm, Joseph D. Clark
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Wildlife Management
Index ID 70225757
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center

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