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After decades of being cast from the state, American black bears have slowly but steadily returned to Oklahoma’s landscape. And while bears are often associated with only our southeastern forests, a small population also exists in the opposite corner of the state, in Cimarron County’s Black Mesa region. To answer questions about the status and origin of these Panhandle black bears, Bailey Kleeberg, a graduate student at Oklahoma State University, spent two summers setting up a series of camera traps and hair snares and got big picture results.  

An American black bear stands near a pile of logs with its nose in the air.


“People were really interested in the main two things I was studying,” Kleeberg said. “They wanted to know how many bears were in the area, and they were definitely interested in the genetic work. 

“I’m excited to be able to give them answers.” 

An estimated 26 black bears are thought to occur in Cimarron County and are genetically similar to those found in northeastern New Mexico. Genetic testing, along with the somewhat even mix of males and females documented during the study, supports the prediction that black bears are well-established in Oklahoma’s Panhandle and are using the edges of their range during periods of drought conditions. Photos of a sow bear with two small cubs were also captured, providing evidence of a breeding population within the Black Mesa region and further support that Oklahoma’s Panhandle population is well-established.

A Hands-Off Approach

Panhandle Black Bears “Captured” with Remote Camera Traps  

To arrive at this estimate of a few dozen bears roaming Cimarron County, Kleeberg spent the summers of 2022 and 2023 meeting with landowners, investigating the available habitat, and deploying camera traps within 160 grids, each 1,500-acres in size.  

In each grid, a motion-triggered trail camera was attached to a tree or t-post about a foot and a half from the ground, facing north. Kleeberg’s team would then assess the available habitat within a two-acre area surrounding the camera, measuring the percent juniper cover, the number of prickly pear cacti and ant mounts available, and the amount of fallen logs or other woody debris on the ground – all of which could equate to a source of food for the bears. After the habitat data had been collected, rocks and logs were then piled about 15 feet in front of the camera and one of four scents – either a skunk-based, beaver, blueberry, or anise oil lure – was added to the pile to attract bears to the camera trap. If triggered, the camera would take a burst of three photos.  

“We saw bears of every color on camera,” Kleeberg said. “There were multiple blonde bears, and even a couple of cinnamon bears. It was cool to see bears with unique pelage patterns moving up and down the river.”  

Cameras were deployed at each site for at least 28 days, sometimes longer if there were camera or card failures. Daily routes were established so that each camera was checked every seven days to make sure it was still functioning, to see if any bears had been detected, and to replenish scent lures. Because of the region’s rough terrain, drive time between the sites, and time spent hiking to individual stations, Kleeberg’s team would sometimes be able to check only six cameras a day. But in less rugged areas of the county, they would be able to visit as many as 20 cameras in a day.  

Smile for the Birdie!  

Black bears may have been the focus of the two-year study, but the targeted carnivores turned up on only a fraction of the nearly 300,000 images captured by the roving trail cameras. Instead of tossing the remaining 99.8% of the photos, Kleeberg recognized these images as the bonus data they were and tagged the prominent species in each file.  

Even though the bulk of the images – just over 95% – were the result of false triggers, livestock, humans, and unidentified blurs, 11,209 images provided an additional snapshot of Cimarron County’s mammal community. Coyotes, white-tailed deer, and rabbits were the most frequent photobombers, but the trail cameras also captured three mammals considered to be of greatest conservation need. More than 50 images of mountain lions were taken in the study’s first year when the cameras were deployed in the Black Mesa region and more than 25 images of swift foxes were captured in the second year when cameras were stationed to the south and east in more shortgrass prairie and agricultural areas. But perhaps the most exciting images were of a hog-nosed skunk, a secretive species that has been documented in Oklahoma only a handful of times. Kleeberg plans to publish a note about the rare observation in a scientific journal to further document the sighting. 

A graph depicting the number of images captured of a variety of mammals in the Panhandle.


Of the 160 camera traps deployed between the two summers, 20 sites captured black bears. For the sites where zero bears were detected in four weeks’ time, the camera was moved to another grid and deployed for another 28 days until a total of 80 sites had been “trapped” each summer. But if a bear was detected on camera, another trap would be set – this time made of barbed wire – in hopes of collecting hair samples for DNA testing.    

These “hair snares” consisted of a single strand of barbed wire that would be stretched low around the scent pile next to the camera and at as many other scent piles as could be established within three-quarters of a mile from the camera. 

Black hair caught in a barbed wire with graph paper in the background.
Bailey Kleeberg

A single strand of barbed wire was used to snag hairs from visiting black bears to learn more about the status and origins of Panhandle black bears. 

As with the camera traps, hair snares were deployed for 28 days with weekly checks by Kleeberg’s team. Any hairs snagged in the barbed wire were collected with sterilized tweezers and stored in small paper envelopes before being sent to the University of Idaho for genetic testing. In addition to shipping 180 hair samples from Panhandle black bears, Kleeberg also sent 69 samples collected by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish from hunter-harvested bears.  

“We wanted to compare the genotypes of Oklahoma bears to those of New Mexico bears to answer questions of population connectivity,” Kleeberg said. 

“We used 11 loci in our final multiplex – enough to differentiate bears at the sibling level – and found a high degree of connectivity between the Oklahoma bears and New Mexico bears.” 

This genetic link and proximity of Black Mesa to the neighboring state of New Mexico are indicators of one larger population using the edges of its already established range. If Oklahoma bears were not genetically connected to New Mexico bears, it could have suggested the bears were moving to the state from a different area. 

The hair samples not only revealed the origins of the Panhandle black bears but also shared insights about Oklahoma’s western bear population. Twenty-one unique black bears, 12 males and nine females, were identified from the 180 hair samples. These known population numbers were then used to shape a statistical model that estimated 26 total bears may occur in the county.   

Becoming Bear Wise 

“As a state, everyone is learning how to live with bears.”  

When Kleeberg first arrived in Cimarron County, her focus was on documenting the status and origins of the county’s bears. But after listening to landowner’s concerns about their safety and damaged property, she quickly added an educational component as a personal mission.  

“Bears getting into the trash, breaking bird feeders, or even breaking into barns and stealing horse feed – these are all things the community is not used to facing,” Kleeberg said. “I wanted to improve their viewpoint of black bears by telling them ‘Here’s what to do to make you, your barn, your animals safe.’” 

BearWise Basics 

To avoid conflicts with bears around the home, BearWise recommends the following steps: 

  • Never feed or approach bears. 
  • Secure food, garbage, and recycling. 
  • Remove bird feeders when bears are active. 
  • Never leave pet food outdoors. 
  • Clean and store grills and smokers. 
  • Alert neighbors to bear activity.  

“Farmers and ranchers are some of the largest land stewards we have left. I’m thankful the landowners welcomed me into the community. Like most of the wildlife projects in Oklahoma, this project would not have been possible without landowner permission.    

“Cimarron County is so unique. It really feels like you’re tucked away up there,” Kleeberg said. “I was fortunate enough to get a good appreciation for the county and am excited to give landowners big picture answers about the bear population.”  

The study of Oklahoma’s Panhandle black bears was funded by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through Wildlife Restoration Grant F21AF02668 with matching resources provided by Oklahoma State University and the USGS Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.

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