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A young black bear wandered through the yard of John and Jan Swartz near Mount Horeb on the evening of June 15. It played with a toad, checked out a bird feeder, and wandered off.

Black bears expanding their range has resulted in a surge in sightings in southern Wisconsin, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

Since March, there have been 140 sightings of black bears in the southern half of Wisconsin -- areas where bears have been seen only rarely or occasionally.

Some of the sightings are of the same bear moving through an area, but the numbers still indicate a growing bear population, as the animals move into new areas, the DNR said.

"Wisconsin's bear population is considerably higher than it was 20 years ago," said Linda Olver, DNR bear biologist.

A 2008 study by the DNR puts the bear population at 26,000 to 40,000, up from 9,000 in a 1989 study.

The next bear population study is set for 2011.

The DNR tries to manage the bear population through regulated hunting, basing the number of permits issued on the lower end of the updated population figure.

The number of permits issued for bear hunting increased 91 percent for the 2010 season compared to the 2008 season.

Even though the population estimate is several times more than the estimate from 20 years earlier, Olver said the DNR doesn't want to issue ever-increasing numbers of permits until a new study is done.

"Until we have additional population survey information to analyze we will be very careful to avoid any overharvest and resulting setbacks to a healthy bear population," Olver said.

The DNR also is planning to start an online bear sighting reporting form to make it easier for the public to report sightings to the agency.

The new feature is expected to be up and running in the spring of 2011 when bears are once again actively dispersing and searching for new territory.

 

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