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While bears hibernate, researchers prepare to explore their ecology in New Mexico

While New Mexico black bears sleep through the winter months and into late spring, researchers at the New Mexico Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and New Mexico State University will prepare to investigate the abundance and density of the species in the state.


A photo of Matthew Gould with a black bear.
Matthew Gould, graduate student in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology, participates in the non-invasive genetic survey of black bears. (Submitted photo)

The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish approached U.S. Geological Survey and NMSU researchers because they wanted to acquire more up-to-date information on the abundance and density of black bear populations in the state. The NMSU study, which will officially begin in summer 2012, is a three-year process that aims to collect more accurate information on the status of bear populations and will aid in establishing hunting quotas and ensuring sustainable harvest.

"It really benefits everyone in the state because the research helps the public understand the animals better," said Matthew Gould, graduate student in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology. "This understanding can also help the Department of Game and Fish make more informed decisions about development, hunting regulations and more."

Gould, along with principal investigator James Cain, assistant unit leader in the New Mexico Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit; Gary Roemer, associate professor in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology; and Bill Gould, professor of Applied Statistics, are collaborating on the project.

The research will be conducted in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico and the Sacramento Mountains in south-central New Mexico. The process will involve collecting hair samples which are left behind after black bears rub against a tree containing a four-pronged barbed wire snare with a scent lure.

Researchers are then able to collect the hair samples, extract DNA from the follicles and conduct a genetic analysis to identify individual black bears. A capture-mark-recapture analysis is then used to estimate the abundance and density of the bears. This method also is widely used to estimate the abundance of grizzly bear populations, Cain said.

"The results will help Game and Fish responsibly set harvest quotas," Gould said. "They want to create a balance so hunters can still have their sport, and the species can still thrive in the state."

Cain said the project will be beneficial both for the university and for New Mexico.

"This type of project provides a great opportunity for graduate students to get hands-on experience," Cain said. "It also allows the public to see the quality of work and research that is going on at NMSU."

Roemer said graduate students like Gould are an important part of many of the research projects undertaken by NMSU faculty and staff. "Graduate students represent the highly educated and motivated work force that is necessary to complete such research," Roemer said.

The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish also would like to look at genetic relatedness among black bears and movements between populations in the future.
For more information, contact Cain at 575-646-3382.