Black Bear Study Finds Growing Populations, But Combating Illegal Trade Remains a Challenge
Among the good news the study reveals is that the estimated black bear population in Canada grew by 6 to 24 percent during the survey period, from between 372,500 and 382,500 in 1988 to between 396,000 and 476,000 in the mid-1990s. During the same period, the United States' black bear population estimate increased from between 253,000 and 375,000 to between 339,000 and 465,000. Black bear populations in Mexico remain difficult to assess because of the lack of available data. The study also notes that some populations, such as the Louisiana black bear subspecies, remain threatened.
"American black bears are doing well throughout most of their current range," said Ernie Cooper, Canadian National Representative of TRAFFIC North America, located at WWF-Canada. "On the whole, wildlife management authorities responsible for black bear conservation should receive credit and acclamation for this success."
However, the TRAFFIC surveys found that in many USA states, laws and regulations to address poaching, illegal trade, and monitoring of hunting and commercial activities involving bears could be improved. Bear parts continue to be in demand, especially the gallbladders and paws, which are used in Asian markets as medicine and food. Illegal killings continue to be reported throughout the black bear's range, though there is no indication that the number of bears involved threatens the overall status of the species. Provinces, territories and states have tightened restrictions on trade in recent years, with a growing number of jurisdictions banning the sale of gallbladders and other parts.
"Wildlife agencies and legislative bodies need to close the existing legislative and regulatory gaps in current black bear management efforts," Cooper said. "Fortunately, because of the relative health of North America's bear populations, we have the opportunity to take action before there is indication of a crisis, such as an increase in poaching pressure. Action is clearly needed and this positive news should not dictate complacency."
Key findings of the TRAFFIC survey include:
- Black bears are found in 12 Canadian provinces and territories, and 41 U.S. states, although their numbers are concentrated in southern regions of Canada, and northern and western regions of the United States. Little information is available about the status of black bears in Mexico, although a Mexican federal committee established in 2000 may help with obtaining data.
- The number of black bears legally hunted and killed in the United States and Canada increased during the overall survey period, from approximately 40,000 bears per year in 1992 to between 40,000 and 50,000 in the mid-1990s.
- Legal and illegal markets for black bears and black bear parts exist in North America and overseas, including Asia and Asian communities in North America. The sale of black bear gallbladders and paws is illegal in most of North America, although the sale of hides is far less restricted. Bear parts are used for various purposes, including traditional Asian medicine (gallbladders are believed to reduce fever and treat various liver ailments), food, souvenirs, jewelry, trophies and taxidermy, as well as in Native American ceremonies. Live bears are used in zoos, wildlife parks, and other collections or displays.
- Illegal hunting remains poorly documented, with some jurisdictions not maintaining careful records of arrests, convictions, and seizures of black bear parts. In some cases, incidents of black bear poaching are not recorded separately from those involving other species, which makes it difficult or impossible to determine how many reported poaching cases involve black bears.
- Requiring hunters to report the take of black bears to management authorities is nearly universal in the United States. The same is not true in Canada, where some provinces and territories have reporting requirements, while others do not. TRAFFIC further found that little effort is made during the reporting process in either country to determine the extent to which gallbladders and other parts from legally hunted bears might be entering trade. Most jurisdictions use reporting requirements simply to record the age and sex of the animals for research and management purposes, or to determine when hunting quotas have been met.
- Every province, territory and state should have a clear statute that directly addresses the issue of trade in bear parts. TRAFFIC urges jurisdictions without such laws to avoid being inadvertent consumers or conduits in the bear trade, by passing laws to either ban trade or allow wildlife authorities to monitor and regulate it. In addition, all provinces, territories and states that allow trade should review their statutes to determine if they are adequate to detect and deter illegal sale of parts.
- All provinces, territories, and states that allow black bear hunting should require reporting of kills to wildlife management authorities. They should also consider surveying hunters to determine the ultimate disposition of the bears and their parts. By making a few changes to existing reporting systems and asking hunters to provide more information, wildlife authorities could help fill a large gap in understanding what happens to the parts of the 40,000 to 50,000 black bears taken legally each year.
- Provinces, territories, and states should earmark revenues from bear hunting licenses and big game permits specifically for bear conservation and management programs. Such a step could create a steady stream of funding for priority bear conservation activities, especially in jurisdictions with large numbers of bear hunters.
- Jurisdictions should develop more consistent and severe penalties for the sale of bear parts to ensure that they pose a significant deterrent to illegal hunting and commercialization. Every province, territory and state should adopt criminal statutes that include fines which are significantly higher than the value of illegally traded bear parts, as well as jail sentences that serve as genuine deterrents.
- It is especially important that Mexico undertake a comprehensive study of the size and status of its black bear population. Useful data would include the identification of critical habitat, threats to that habitat and extant black bear subpopulations, and identification of conservation measures needed to ensure the survival of the black bear in Mexico. As in the United States, there may also be areas of potential black bear habitat where the species might be reintroduced.