Black bear boom means more teeth to sort
Caro- BRIDGTON, MAINE — lyn Nistler is at the forefront of a boom in a resource that plays a key role in the management of American wild- life: bear teeth.
Nistler, owner of a Montana lab, and others are sorting through a windfall of teeth taken from American black bears, which use their powerful jaws to crush hazelnuts and chew salmon flesh. The growing population of the bears in the United States has scientists sorting through thousands more teeth, which are important to get a han- dle on the health of America’s bruins.
“Populations are growing,” she said. “We’ve increased facilities to accommodate so turnaround time isn’t longer.”
States use bear teeth for research such as how old the animals were at the time they died, which can be an indicator of how healthy bear popu- lations are. The teeth are most often harvested from bears
killed by big game hunters, who seek the burly animals for sport all over the coun- try. Some are also taken from roadkill animals.
Nistler owns Matson’s Labo- ratory in Manhattan, Montana, which processes the most teeth of any lab in America. The lab contracts with state wildlife departments and processed nearly 260,000 black bear teeth from 2009 to 2016, up from less than 220,000 from 2001 to 2008, according to data provided by Nistler.
A growing bear population has created more hunting opportunities, which leads in turn to more bear teeth for researchers, Nistler said.
Indeed, the tooth boom comes as the black bear pop- ulation is expanding in many states, especially in East Coast states like Maine, where the population has grown from 30,000 in 2010 to more than 35,000 now according to state wildlife managers. Bear populations are also growing in Massachusetts, New Jersey and elsewhere. Black bears live in 41 states.
The nationwide population was more than 400,000 in 2008, which is most likely double the population in 1900, and it has expanded even more in the last nine years, said Lynn Rogers, a bear expert with the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota.
Bear p op u lat ions have increased as people have learned to live around the animals, which are mostly skittish around humans, Rogers said.