Measuring levels of genetic variation is an important aspect of conservation genetics. The informativeness of such measurements is related to the variability of the genetic markers used; a particular concern in species, such as bears, which are characterized by low levels of genetic variation resulting from low population densities and small effective population sizes. We describe the development of microsatellite analysis in bears and its use in assessing interpopulation differences in genetic variation in black bears from three Canadian National Parks. These markers are highly variable and allowed identification of dramatic differences in both distribution and amount of variation between populations. Low levels of variation were observed in a population from the Island of Newfoundland. The significance of interpopulation differences in variability was tested using a likelihood ratio test of estimates of theta = 4Ne mu.