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Wisconsin's bear estimate may be double the 2007 number

Results halfway through a two-year study of Wisconsin's black bear population shows the state may have double the number of bruins previously estimated.

The study shows the state has about 25,000 to 30,000 black bear, more than double the 2007 estimate of about 12,350 bear calculated using different techniques.

The new finding is preliminary, with another year of data yet to be studied. But wildlife managers say the news is encouraging, and could eventually lead to increased permits for hunters to shoot bears.

"We're confident that the population is at least double [the previous estimate] and it could be higher,'' said Keith Warnke, big game biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Warnke said the bear population is expanding in density and in area, with bears across much of the western and central portions of the state, not just the north. The new study included all areas of the state, not just primary bear range as past studies.

"It's good news that we have good bear habitat, good news for bear hunters and good news for people who like to see bear,'' Warnke said.

While there of course isn't double the number of bears as last year, Warnke said the population trend has indeed been going up, even using the traditional population models.

For the study, a harmless chemical tracer was placed in bear bait left at strategic areas with bones from hunted animals then checked for the tracer and included in a population model.

The study was conducted in the field in 2006 and 2007 with the help of the state's bear hunters. It was funded by the DNR and conducted by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers Dave MacFarland and Timothy Van Deelen.

Minnesota has about the same area of black bear habitat as Wisconsin and estimates its bear population at about 30,000 animals.

"The preliminary results are comparable to bear densities in Minnesota and Michigan's Upper Peninsula," Van Deelen said in a statement. "Dave and I spent a good deal of time rechecking our calculations and we're eager to see if the results hold when the second year of data are incorporated."

Warnke said nuisance bear complaints have been stable even as the bear population increases, possibly indicating people are more willing to have bear in their area without calling the DNR.

"People are learning to move their bird feeders and garbage and aren't necessarily calling us,'' Warnke said.

Last year about 36,000 hunters applied for 4,500 bear permits. Of those, about 3,000 bears were killed, Warnke said. Any changes in the number of bear permits offered won't happen until at least 2009, he said.