Perspectives Online

Ursa Major. Black bear population rebound makes for some exciting science in the east. By Art Latham

Black bears that have expanded their ranges in the North Carolina lowlands (above) and elsewhere leave DNA traces that wildlife biologist Tim Langer (below, with a tranquilized bruin) analyzes to help manage the bear population. more bear photos >>
Photo by Tom Harrison

The rising full moon gently shimmers over the flat lowlands near Lake Mattamuskeet. Penned bear hounds bay - it's a sound hunters call "belling"- in the background. And several hundred people - wildlife scientists, hunters and their friends and families - chow down on oysters, chicken and barbeque. They're gathered among farm equipment and hay bales behind Pascal Ballance's Hyde County home on this mild autumn night to celebrate, basically, the return of the black bear.

That and to hear Tim Langer, a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Agriculture and Life Science's Zoology Department and the event's organizer, present his latest bear research and to raise funds for that research, as he has here for the past three years.

Tim Langer
Photo by Karma Langer
Langer, a popular speaker, has delivered more than 35 such talks since 2001, when he began studies on an equally popular subject: the black bear in North Carolina. The bruin's phenomenal return in the Tar Heel State seems matched only by our deer re-invasion.

Backed by a five-year North Carolina Wildlife Research Commission grant, Langer's study, using DNA sampling, might make life a little easier both for wildlife biologists and bears. Evaluating new research techniques, he works closely with NCWRC personnel such as Dr. David Cobb, wildlife management division chief, who is his project's co-adviser, and Mark Jones, NCWRC bear biologist and black bear project leader.

"The advantages of DNA sampling," Langer says, "are that the DNA present is a permanent mark of the individual; you can sample a much greater area because samples don't have to be checked every day like a physically restraining trap; and you can assess population sizes with less error."

Accurate population estimates are crucial to wildlife management decisions.

At home even in a Hyde County swamp, Langer has searched through about 420 square miles of coastal areas investigating the dispersal patterns of bears.
Photo by Salina Kohut
In the 1970s, many coastal North Carolina counties closed bear hunting through local laws because of hunter-landowner conflicts, an influx of non-local hunters and perceived low bear population sizes, says Jones, who gave Langer his original research idea.

Among the management tools that helped bears recover were the 28 sanctuaries established in 1970 across the state. Aggressive NCWRC educational programs improved the public's perceptions about black bears, and the commission improved its management techniques. Today, hunting seasons are open and again subject to NCWRC control, and harvests have increased, Jones says.

Back in 1900, most of North Carolina's large wild animals had retreated to backwoods and backwaters, mountains and swamps. Cougars and wolves didn't recover on their own. But the more resilient black bear has actually expanded its range and population in the past several decades, rebounding from about 4,000 ranging over approximately 2.5 million acres in 1971 to about 11,000 on almost 10 million acres in 2004, NCWRC statistics indicate. Some bears are regularly sighted outside their customary, but ever-growing, range in at least 15 additional, mostly non-urban counties.

Keeping track of such changes is the NCWRC's business, but it's not easy. The commission's biologists and technicians spend thousands of hours yearly collecting data from hunter-harvested and auto-killed bears to compile a large database that provides trend data on bear reproduction and age structure.

In 2000, NCWRC collected 745 teeth (for aging data) and 115 reproductive tracts from dead black bears; since the early 1970s, those numbers total 14,539 "ages" and 2,277 reproductive tracts.

Langer is trying to establish DNA research's efficacy with this rapidly expanding population by testing critical research assumptions. Expensive lab costs - about $50 for a single hair sample - usually force bear researchers to randomly analyze only a small percentage of their collected samples; Langer has analyzed all of the 4,259 hair samples he's gathered.

He randomly chose different sub-sampling methods to test the results' sensitivity.

"Since other researchers lure bears to DNA hair traps using scent and food, randomly sub-sampling 5-to-25 percent may greatly underestimate the population size," Langer maintains, "because your chance sub-sample will most likely include just the bears lured back by prior food."

Preliminary results from his expanded research suggest that using food and scent results in twice as many samples as scent alone, and certain bears leave more hair in a given week and return more often in subsequent weeks.

"Those would presumably be the bears that ate the food lure," he says.

With the help of 13 N.C. State University student technicians and NCWRC personnel, Langer has identified 901 different bear genotypes in his study: 250 of those were hunter-harvested, so their teeth were collected for aging assessments.

To investigate problematic sampling issues further, Langer trapped and "aged" 75 bears over three years, again expanding his research so as to attach GPS satellite collars on 36. He attached 10 GPS collars in 2002 and 19 in 2003 to investigate seasonal movement patterns, including during autumn hunting seasons. From May to September 2004, seven bears wore collars that reported their locations every five minutes to investigate their movements relative to DNA hair traps. This data will help correlate the number of trips by a bear to a hair sampling site with the number of hair samples actually collected, Langer says.

"Also," he says, "tall adult males may be stepping over the barbed wire, not leaving hair. This would mean that population is being underestimated. Collar movement data will tell us this and much more."

Several College researchers assist Langer.

Dr. Ken Pollock, professor of zoology, biomath and statistics, helps analyze recapture rate differences between bears and the effects on population estimates. And Dr. Amanda Hepler, geneticist and a postdoctoral student in the College, also assists with the research data.

"She's running relatedness estimates for all pairs of bears to identify parent-offspring, full- and half-sibling relatives," Langer says. "That's useful for investigating bear dispersal patterns, the size of the bear population relative to the carrying capacity; that is, how many bears can exist on the resources of a given area. We're also interested in differences in the numbers of offspring between bears, since bears are polygamous."

"Knowing how many animals are in a wild population is crucial to making informed decisions about management," says Dr. Phil Doerr, Langer's faculty adviser and professor in the College of Natural Resources' fisheries and wildlife sciences program. "Tim's innovative work provides important new tools for assessing reliability of DNA population estimates.

"Tim started this project from scratch," Doerr says, "and has worked hard to gain credibility in the community and enhance their view of wildlife and wild place. He earned their trust and respect."

That trust is crucial for the fund-raising the personable Langer carries on to pay additional expenses incurred by expanding his research. In addition to fund-raising events, he has turned to private partners for support.

One such partner is Chuck Blalock, who, with Bill Blount, Tom Harrison, Hoyt Lowder, Jamin Simmons, and Hunter and Toliver Parks, co-owns the 15,000-acre Mattamuskeet Ventures Farm. Blalock is a strong bear research supporter and the farm is one of the main project study areas.

Blalock recently recounted the first time he saw Langer in the wilderness.

"We were on a dirt road on our land around Mattamuskeet and this young man in shorts and a cap comes out of the brush from nowhere," Blalock recalls. "We were curious about what he was doing, and after he had explained, we offered him free room at our lodge, and he ended up making it headquarters for his research project.

"Tim got along with everybody and had the run of the county," he says, "and I think it's pretty rare that an outsider could come in and get along with all those different landowners and hunters. But he understands the science of wildlife management."

In fact, Langer has keys and access to more than 60 private properties and access to state and federal lands. From 2001 to 2004, he ranged over about 420 square miles of scrub, thick forest, cleared fields and swamp in Hyde County, around Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, south of the Intracoastal Waterway.

Langer seems at home in the wild. His wildlife biology research experience is extensive: AmeriCorps volunteer in New Mexico in 1995, involved in the controversial Mexican gray wolf reintroduction; technician for the National Biological Service in 1994, involved in Montana gray wolf reintroduction; researcher from 1998 to 2000 at the Pisgah (N.C.) Bear Sanctuary, trapping 43 bears; and at Badlands National Park, S.D., correlating human land-use changes with prairie dog town viability for black-footed ferret reintroduction.

After earning a 1993 B.A in biology from Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., Langer was trained in public policy and natural resources in 1995 at the University of Minnesota. He also holds a 1999 master's degree in wildlife and fisheries sciences from N.C. State.

He intends to finish his dissertation by August 31 and formally graduate this fall. He hopes to become a university professor and continue teaching, research and extension interests, he says.

Still, degrees and experience don't always pay expenses, and despite his well-attended and sponsored annual bear information sessions Down East, Langer has to remedy a $14,000 funding deficit. And he's doing his best to raise the money himself.

In addition to two NCWRC research grants, he has raised $194,000 from private donors, including Mattamuskeet Ventures, Triangle Chapter of Safari Club International, the Camp Younts Foundation, Moore Printing and Graphics, North Carolina Bear Hunter's Association; and the Catawba Valley, Alamance and Wake County wildlife clubs. Also contributing have been hundreds of individuals, mostly bear hunters.

It doesn't hurt fund-raising efforts that Langer and his research have been featured on TV on a 2003 "North Carolina Now" TV segment and several of the Outdoors Channel's "Jim Zumbo Outdoors" hunting programs. He also was interviewed for the 2005 N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission's black bear documentary, "The Bear Facts: The Story of a North Carolina Treasure."

Also, the Safari Clubs International "Sensory Safari" trailer, on display at the Mattamuskeet event and at the last two state fairs, is 34-foot walk-through educational exhibit of North Carolina wildlife. SCI's Triangle Chapter, of which Langer is an officer, built the trailer for the state, is building another and intends to build a third, says Blalock, who's a chapter past-president. The chapter also paid for two GPS tracking collars for Langer's work.

And Warren Baughman of Predator Sport Fishing is offering a one-day, six-guest marlin fishing trip to the first $2,000 donor. Donations are tax deductible, Langer says.

But, Langer adds, "Even more important than the money are the chances I get to share knowledge from the project, answer questions and promote camaraderie."