Black Bear

Genetics of the Ontario Black Bear

The Ontario black bear (Ursus americanus) is a prime example of a species that has become adversely affected by human activities. Not only is it a large, long lived mammal with low reproductive rates but it is also a species that requires a large habitat range. Presently, their habitat is threatened by human development and habitat fragmentation.

Furthermore, In most Canadian provinces the black bear constitutes a game species and may also be illegally poached for their gall bladders and other body parts that are used in traditional medicines or foreign cuisine. In response to such environmental pressures this species may have to seek new habitat, risk isolation, or local extirpation. These issues have raised concern for the status of the Ontario black bear.

Over the past five years, the Natural Resources DNA Profiling & Forensic Centre has been working in collaboration with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to investigate the use of barbed wire bait stations in mark-recapture studies for the Ontario black bear. The OMNR barbed wire bait stations have been in place since 1997 in various locations across Ontario including Chapleau, Parry Sound, and Atikokan. Past and ongoing studies involve DNA analysis of hair samples collected along these stations.

This inexpensive form of non-invasive sampling has enabled us to identify individual black bear within given areas. In turn, this allows us to determine the number of individual black bears visiting and returning to bait stations as well as estimating distances traveled. Overall, this information can be used to look at population trends, estimate the local density of black bears, and understand the movement of black bears. Determination of individual genotypes further allows us to perform population genetic analysis that can assesses levels of genetic variation, gene flow, and movement patterns within or between areas of Ontario. Additional population studies involving multiple genetic markers also enables us to look at sex-specific movement patterns.

Currently, the Natural Resources DNA Profiling & Forensic Centre is using these approaches in molecular ecology to study the differences in black bear populations between protected areas (such as the Chapleau Game Preserve and Algonquin Provincial Park) and their surrounding non-protected areas. Due the effects of habitat fragmentation, protected areas can act as refugia in which animals may inhabit in order to avoid human disturbances. In turn, protected areas surrounded by patchy habitat may contribute to a source-sink metapopulation system.

It is important to determine the connectivity between protected parks and other wildlife areas. Conducting molecular research like this will help give insight into population trends and future wildlife management techniques in addition to conserving the genetic diversity and sustainability of black bear populations within Ontario.

For more information, Please contact Chris Kyle or Brad White at the NRDPFC.

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