The Quinault Indian Nation is evaluating black bear populations with the goal of developing harvest models to minimize commercial tree damage while sustainably maintaining the population.

The black bear, or chitwin, has been a mainstay of Quinault Indian Nation (QIN) culture for centuries and is the mascot for Taholah schools. However, a dense population of the bears caused significant damage to commercial trees, one of the economic anchors for the nation.

When bears first emerge from their dens, trees are one of the first foods available to them. They strip the bark to get to sugar in the inner layers, affecting tree growth and sometimes killing the tree. An attempt was made to lure the bears away from the trees with other food, but it failed to reduce damage sufficiently.

Kristen Phillips, wildlife biologist for the Quinault Indian Nation, removes black bear hairs from a snare designed to snag them, for later  genetic identification.

Kristen Phillips, wildlife biologist for the Quinault Indian Nation, removes black bear hairs from a snare designed to snag them, for later genetic identification.

In 2004, QIN established commercial hunts for non-tribal members led by tribal guides. Damage to trees has been significantly reduced and now QIN wants to know how many bears are on the reservation and create a management plan.

Black bears reproduce at an older age than other species, and mate less frequently, usually only birthing one or two cubs at a time. Female bears are the key to the sustainability of a bear population.

QIN has finished a hair sampling study, paid for by federal Bureau of Indian Affairs dollars, that non-invasively snags bear hair on barbed wire, allowing genetic identification of individual bears. “This begins to give us an idea of population size,” said Kristen Phillips, wildlife biologist for QIN. Now, the tribe is working to temporarily trap and radio-collar bears to get an idea of home range sizes and how bait stations for the guided hunts are changing bear behavior.

“We have four collars and six more on the way,” Phillips said. “If we are successful in obtaining additional funding, the goal is to collar a minimum of 20 bears.”

The research goals are to learn more about denning behavior, cub survival rates, reproductive rates, home ranges and whether there are seasonal influxes of bears from outside the reservation.

“This research will give QIN a much better understanding of current populations and behavior to allow informed management decisions,” said Phillips.