Known as the Sooner State, Oklahoma is a melting pot of unique cultural traditions. The state gets its name from the Choctaw words okla, meaning “people,” and humma, meaning “red.” In total, over 39 tribal nations lived within the modern borders of Oklahoma. These tribes each had their own history, language, and culture that greatly influenced the state. Meanwhile, the state’s nickname references the “Sooners,” a group of settlers who staked claims in the Oklahoma Territory before the lands officially opened for settlement. The state’s culture was also shaped by its neighbors, particularly Texas, whose ranchers drove cattle into the state.
Along with a mixture of peoples, Oklahoma also boasts an incredible amount of geographic diversity. The state contains numerous distinct geographic regions, including prairie, forests, mesas, and mountain ranges. This geographic diversity also lends itself to a high degree of biodiversity. Within the state, you can find over 760 different species of wildlife, including 350 bird species, over 100 mammal species, and more than 170 fish species. Some large predators found in the state include red foxes, American alligators, bobcats, and mountain lions. The state also supports a small but thriving population of black bears. While most bears average just a few hundred pounds, some can grow to an enormous size. Let’s take a moment to discover the largest bear ever caught in Oklahoma. We’ll also cover what types of bears you can find in the state, where they live, and whether the state allows bear hunting.
The Largest Bear Ever Caught in Oklahoma
The record for the largest bear ever caught in Oklahoma officially belongs to Jeremy DeFrange of McAlester, Oklahoma. On October 7, 2012, DeFrange shot a male black bear with a live weight of 675 pounds. DeFrange, who at the time worked as a mechanic at the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant, stalked his record bear for almost a year. He first spotted the bear in 2011, but the season ended before he got a chance to harvest the bear. Undeterred, DeFrange set out in the 2012 season with the goal of nabbing that massive bear.
Several weeks prior to making the kill, DeFrange set up bait barrels to lure the bear. He then waited several weeks for the perfect shot, which he got on October 7. The bear’s combined skull measurements equaled 20 and 15/16 inches. The state’s Cy Curtis Awards program recognizes hunters who managed to harvest “trophy” animals. Like many trophy organizations, Cy Curtis determines an animal’s status based on its skull measurements. Bear skull scoring involves the addition of two measurements: the width of the widest portion of the skull (cheek to cheek) plus the length of the longest portion of the skull (the base of the skull to the front teeth), rounded to the nearest 1/16 of an inch. To earn a Cy Curtis award for a bear, the bear’s skull must possess combined measurements exceeding 19 inches. That means DeFrange’s bear exceeded the minimum requirement by nearly 2 inches!
Bears in Oklahoma: Types and Appearance
You can only find one bear species in Oklahoma. The American black bear (Ursus americanus) represents the sole bear species found in the state. That said, most bears in Oklahoma are descended from bears that originated in neighboring states, such as Arkansas. Neither grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) nor polar bears (Ursus martitmus) are endemic to the Sooner State.
American black bears feature several distinguishing characteristics. The first things people notice about them are their size and color. On average, adult specimens range between 90 and 500 pounds. However, some adults occur outside this range, particularly on the higher end of the spectrum. For instance, older male bears can weigh up to 700 pounds or more, although they usually only measure that much in fall right before they go into hibernation (torpor). As for color, most black bears look black, aside from the muzzle, which usually looks light or dark brown. However, they can also appear dark brown, cinnamon, blue-gray, or blonde.
American black bears have a straight-face profile and no shoulder hump, unlike grizzly bears. Their front claws usually measure around 1.5 inches long. They possess short, rounded ears and a short, vestigial tail.
Bears in Oklahoma: Habitat
Up until the arrival of European settlers in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, black bears used to live throughout North America. Overhunting and habitat loss drove black bears from much of their historical range. In the contiguous United States, most black bears live in the Pacific Northwest, the Rocky Mountain range, the Great Lakes region, and throughout the American northeast. Outside of the lower 48 states, you can find large populations in Alaska and Canada. Additionally, smaller populations live in central Mexico, the American southeast, and the Midwest. You can find black bears in a wide range of habitats. However, they frequently live near rivers or streams with riparian vegetation. Their preferred habitats include forests, woodlands, swamps, and wetlands. They tend to avoid dry, arid regions such as deserts or open grasslands that lack significant food or water sources.
The greatest concentration of bears in Oklahoma lives in three distinct areas. The majority of black bears live in the far southeastern corner of the state. Smaller densities occur in the east-central part of the state near the Arkansas River and the far western part of the Oklahoma Panhandle. That said, you can spot black bears almost anywhere in the eastern part of the state. Additionally, the evidence appears to suggest that bears continue to move further west into the state. In recent years people have spotted black bears as far north as Grove and as far west as Wayne.
How Many Bears Are There in Oklahoma?
Bears used to live throughout Oklahoma. No one knows exactly how many bears lived in the state at the historical peak, but the population likely numbered in the thousands or tens of thousands. Prior to statehood, the Oklahoma Territory had no rules forbidding the hunting of bears. This led to the widespread killing of bears throughout the territory. By the time Oklahoma became a state in 1907, almost no bears remained in the state. However, the reintroduction of bears into neighboring Arkansas between 1958 and 1968 turned the Oklahoma bear population around. Over the next few decades, the bear population gradually increased by around 6% per year. Today, experts estimate that approximately 2,500 black bears live throughout the state. This means that Oklahoma contains only around 0.3% of the total black bear population in North America.
Is It Legal to Hunt Bears in Oklahoma?
For years, Oklahoma forbade the hunting of bears within its borders. This ban allowed the bear population in the state to slowly recover. By 2009, state wildlife officials changed the rules and legalized bear hunting in the state. Oklahoma allows bear hunting during two separate hunting seasons. The archery season typically occurs during early October, while the muzzleloader season occurs during late October. At first, the state did not set a specific quota on the number of harvestable bears. Today, the state defines a quota for muzzleloader season but not for archery season. On average, the muzzleloader season quota equals around 20 bears. The muzzleloader season ends either on the last day of the season or once the quota is met.
To hunt bears in Oklahoma, residents must possess a hunting license, while nonresidents must obtain a nonresident bear license. Oklahoma limits hunters to 1 bear harvest per year over both combined seasons. The state prohibits bear baiting in wildlife management areas, but permits bear baiting on private land. Additionally, Oklahoma does not allow you to hunt bear cubs, females with cubs, or radio-collared bears. You also cannot shoot a bear while it rests in its den. Although you can use a leashed dog to locate a downed bear, you cannot use dogs to pursue a live bear.
Are Bears Dangerous?
Although bears aren’t as common as they used to be, you still have a real possibility of encountering a bear in Oklahoma. Sightings occur most frequently in summer when bears start to forage extensively for food. Black bears are opportunistic scavengers and are often attracted by readily available food sources, such as garbage, bird feeders, or pet food left outdoors. These unsecured food sources increase the chances of a bear encounter in more populated areas. Additionally, a black bear may view a dog on a leash outside as potential prey. Many bear attacks near people’s homes occur when a bear chases a dog or cat into a person’s home. Other attacks occur when people leave food outdoors or come between a bear and an animal carcass. In these situations, the bear isn’t attacking because it’s aggressive but because it’s trying to defend its food source.
Black bears are notoriously timid animals that frequently avoid interacting with humans. Wild black bears will usually either ignore or run away from humans rather than try to attack them. Contrary to popular belief, mother black bears rarely attack humans that come near their cubs. This behavior occurs more often with grizzly bears, which are more aggressive and predatory than black bears. However, some black bears can grow accustomed to humans over time and slowly lose their fear of people. When this happens, the chance of bear encounters and attacks increases.
Still, there are a few steps you can take to survive an encounter with a black bear. First and foremost, remember to remain calm. Take stock of the situation. If the bear is in the distance, keep an eye on it, but otherwise, go about your business. If the bear starts to come toward you, keep your eyes on the bear and slowly back away to a safe distance. You can try scaring the bear by making yourself appear bigger or making loud noises. Common tactics include standing tall with your arms in the air and yelling loudly or clapping your hands.
Unfortunately, these tactics won’t work on all bears. If a black bear attacks you, do everything in your power to stay alive. Don’t play dead – this only works on grizzly bears. Try to use your environment to your advantage. Try to move obstacles between yourself and the bear or use sticks or stones as weapons. Concentrate your attacks on the bear’s weak spots – its eyes, nose, and ears. That said, your best bet to avoid a bear confrontation is to avoid increasing your chances of an attack. Secure trash cans, remove bird feeders, and keep food inside your home or a lock box at a campsite. Additionally, always take an air horn or bear spray with you when hiking or camping.
Oklahoma currently supports a population of around 2,500 black bears. Moreover, the state managed to attain this population from almost zero in just a few decades. Today, the state offers two bear hunting seasons each year around October. While bear harvest numbers remain low, some hunters have already managed to bag record trophy kills. Only time will tell when another hunter steps forward to claim the title of largest bear ever caught in Oklahoma.
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- , Available here: https://www.mcalesternews.com/sports/local_sports/savanna-man-kills-675-pound-black-bear/article_a23b5031-498b-5d77-b47d-edddd6436778.html
- , Available here: https://www.wildlifedepartment.com/wildlife/encounters/bear-basic#:~:text=Encountering%20a%20black%20bear%20in,western%20tip%20of%20the%20Panhandle.
- , Available here: https://wildlifedepartment.com/hunting/regs/bear-big-game-season