Bring Back the Bears
Article by Tamra Bolton
Photos by Katy Baldrick, Tamara Bolton, Timothy Flanigan, Russell A. Graves, Ben Masters
When Texas won its independence in 1836, it was still a vast and mostly untamed territory. As man moved into this new country from the east, the black bear began to retreat. By the beginning of the 20th century, our four black bear subspecies had almost disappeared; only the Mexican black bear and the New Mexico black bear remained in the far corners of West Texas, and the once prolific American black bear and Louisiana black bear had all but vanished from East Texas.
Today, the black bear depends on us for its survival. With only two regions remaining that are prime potential habitat for black bears, the experts agree that bringing a species back into its original range is a challenge and often fraught with difficulties.
A prophetic statement by Dr. Chris Servheen, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1990 Report on the Status of Bears said, “The fate of bears in many parts of the world will be decided in the next 10-20 years. The future of several species is in serious doubt. The elimination of bears from 50-75 percent of their historic range has already occurred, and the remaining range will decrease unless serious efforts are focused on bear conservation.”
Servheen’s predictions seem to have come true in many areas where bears were once prolific. His call to preserve the habitat/range of bears is one that many in the Texas wildlife community have rallied behind.
The first step in helping the bear reclaim its place in our Texas landscape is to evaluate the current population and identify possible habitats. Then we need to implement educational programs and methods that will help the bears be successful in regaining the territory they have lost. Many of our state’s wildlife biologists, foresters and concerned citizens are doing just that.
To learn how to help the black bear we must first understand its diet, habits and other aspects of bear biology. Bears are opportunistic feeders—many wildlife biologists refer to them as “oversized raccoons.” With a diet consisting of mostly nuts, berries, grasses, insects, grubs and seeds, they are also known to eat carrion when available.
On rare occasions, bears will eat small mammals, given the opportunity, but black bears are not active hunters like the grizzly and polar bear. Black bears are lazy and will seek an easier food source, which sometimes gets them in trouble with humans. When bears take advantage of garbage, pet food, bird feeders (including hummingbird feeders), deer corn feeders and bee apiaries, they can cause property damage and become a nuisance. According to the Black Bear Conservation Coalition (BBCC), there are no reports of Louisiana black bears preying on livestock or pets in recent history.
Jeff Ford, the Senior Wildlife Biologist for the Southeast Region of Oklahoma, says, “We have lots of broiler houses with up to 40,000 chickens and just wire doors on the houses, and we’ve had no problems. The bears would rather eat the chicken feed instead of the birds.”
Many people are concerned about safety around bears. But in West Texas where Big Bend National Park (BBNP) has had more than 6,592 bear/human encounters since 1950, only 2.5 percent of those encounters were classified as aggressive interactions. Most of those occurred when the bear made contact with property containing human food. There has never been a black bear attack recorded in BBNP.
The story is the same in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana where bears are more common; there have been no reports of black bears attacking humans, which should make anyone with concerns about safely co-existing with black bears feel more at ease. Bears are also shy and try to avoid humans, preferring to stay in more isolated areas.
People often express alarm when they see a black bear rear up on its hind legs, but these bears are very curious, and this is their way of getting a better look at whatever has attracted their attention, not an aggressive move. If frightened, black bears will usually run into the security of a dense habitat or climb a tree.
Paul Davidson, the retired Director of the BBCC, calls the Louisiana black bear “a nose on four legs” and reminded us that “bears are intelligent, but lazy…and bears often get a bad rap because they get into feeders and garbage, but if people are proactive,” he added, “we wouldn’t have problems.”
Ford agreed, “If you remove the source of food, the bear will usually move on. Remove bird feeders and replace them with native plantings, water and nesting boxes to make your yard more attractive to birds and less attractive to bears.”
The BBCC also said that switching bait types from preferred bear foods like corn to less attractive foods like soybeans or rice bran can also help reduce bear activity at deer feeders.
Dr. Louis A. Harveson, the Dan Allen Hughes Jr. Endowed Director of Borderlands Research Institute, Sul Ross State University, concurred, “Bears are drawn not only to feeders and garbage, but other things, like plastic products, motor oil and treated-wood posts.”
Removing these temptations or replacing them with metal is a good way to keep bears where they belong. Harveson recommended replacing the plastic floats in water tanks with metal ones as another good preventive measure since bears are drawn to water sources, especially in drier climates such as in West Texas.
The burden lies with humans, not the bears; they are only behaving according to their natural instincts. Implementing preventive measures can lessen the likelihood of a bear becoming a nuisance.
The bear’s fear of humans is the main key to its survival. By doing what we can to prevent bear/human interaction, we are helping the bears stay where they belong.
Black bears have been naturally re-colonizing the Trans-Pecos region from surrounding areas beginning in the 1990s after being absent since the 1950s.
“There are somewhere between 50-100 black bears in this area,” Harveson said. “It’s a guess, but I feel comfortable with those numbers.”
Harveson is optimistic about the projected growth of the bear population in the region.
“I think there is tremendous opportunity for black bears to repopulate much of their former distribution in the Trans-Pecos,” he said. “The biggest challenge they will face is ‘us.’ We need to prepare the communities, landowners and hunters for their return and educate them on best practices so we can co-exist.”
Harveson also suggested that this co-existence could be easier now than in the past, given the changes in land use over the last century. Fewer cattle, sheep and goat operations in the region mean fewer potential conflicts of interest and fewer possibilities for negative interactions. Not that the bear would be a threat to the animals, but the presence of grain/feed and other attractants to bears might be a source of friction for landowners and managers.
With the mountain ranges of Mexico and New Mexico adjacent to Texas and Big Bend, their black bear populations are helping the bears regain a foothold in the Trans-Pecos. Evaluating potential travel corridors for the bears in these regions is also helping researchers predict if, how, when and where black bears will return to their historic habitats. They all agree that natural recolonization for bears will take a considerable amount of time due to the species’ population dynamics (survival, reproduction, dispersal) and the fluctuations in available resources for bears in the Trans-Pecos.
Harveson encouraged landowners and managers to “learn about the bears’ habits, diet and behaviors. Know your property. Look for bear signs such as scat and scratches on trees, and try to protect mast producing plants that bears eat, keep feeders clean and properly placed for bear country are all good practical ways to help the bears and help us evaluate movements and population numbers.”
Even though a breeding population is now established in Big Bend National Park (BBNP), the black bear has a long road ahead to begin flourishing and regain its historically held territory. As Harveson suggested, education and public support will be key to the successful return of the black bear in West Texas, adding, “I think, in general, the sentiment in having bears return to the region is positive.”
While West Texas is having moderate success in its black bear re-establishment, East Texas is in the beginning stages of getting the black bear back into the region.
“Our neighboring states have done well on an active approach in restoration and demonstrated remarkable success and peaceful coexistence with the black bear,” said Adrian F. Van Dellen, Chairman of the Texas Black Bear Alliance (TBBA). “While natural colonization is the official Texas Parks and Wildlife Department stance here in Texas, we are moving towards a cooperative effort and framework of understanding that might open the door to other possibilities.”
TPWD will update its East Texas Black Bear Conservation and Habitat Management in 2020, and the TBBA will have input into this new plan. The TBBA also plans to organize speaking groups to travel throughout southeast Texas with a black bear education program. The results of this educational effort will play a big part in the decisions concerning the reestablishment and possible translocation of the black bear in southeast Texas.
“Landowners, elected officials and all citizens need to show their support for binging back the bears…that is the most important component in the success of the bears’ return,” Van Dellen said, noting that when people understand what to expect from the presence of black bears and know how to react safely and proactively, attitudes towards bear recovery are more positive.
East Texas also has the challenge of rapidly growing cities and suburbs in close proximity to many of the prime habitat for bears. The movement of residents from urban to more rural areas is changing the landscape in ways that may further impact the bears’ return.
“The lack of large contiguous expanses of suitable habitat in East Texas may be the largest limiting factor in regards to the return of the black bear in that region,” said Myron Means, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Statewide Large Carnivore Program Coordinator.
As private land is divided into smaller and smaller units, coordination and cooperation between these potential bear recovery areas become extremely important. Just as they are doing in West Texas as well, TPWD and other agencies are working to identify possible travel corridors between the identified bear habitats. Because the prime areas for habitat like BBNP are made up of several units and are not one continuous tract, safe travel corridors are essential if bears are to have a chance to repopulate.
This is where private citizens and landowners can play an active and essential role in the successful return of the black bear. A recent study by a graduate student at the Stephen F. Austin State University’s Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture is helping TPWD to identify potential habitat corridors in East Texas and the surrounding states, which could possibly help facilitate the natural return of the Louisiana black bear to some parts of East Texas.
As of 2019 no breeding population of black bears exists in East Texas, but the number of bear sightings has increased over the past decade. Donna Work with the Texas A&M Forest Service in Lufkin says most of the sightings in the area are on game cameras.
“These could be transient bears moving back and forth between our neighboring states,” she said.
Sightings are important to researchers and biologists who are trying to get a clearer picture of the black bear movements into the area. She encourages residents to report East Texas sightings to TPWD biologist Dave Holderman at (903) 566-1626 ext. 209. You can also join the Texas Black Bear Alliance to learn what is happening with the black bear in Texas and help their educational outreach efforts.
Since its founding in 1990, the Black Bear Conservation Coalition set out to reverse the actions that brought the Louisiana black bear to a point where it required the federal listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. With the involvement of timber companies, agricultural and energy interests, conservation organizations, universities and individuals, BBCC managed to help the bear population rebound much faster than anyone predicted.
Today, our adjoining states of Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma have all reaped the benefits of thousands of volunteers, businesses and educational institutions’ efforts through BBCC.
While Louisiana does not yet offer a hunting season on black bears, the numbers are reaching a point where it is being considered. Oklahoma has a very limited season, and in the now completed 2019-2020 season, 61 black bears were harvested. Arkansas, with their rich habitat diversity had a harvest in 2019-2020 of 432 bears, an incredible number considering that there were as few as 25 bears in Arkansas in 1940.
University of Arkansas biology professor Kimberly Smith has called the reintroduction “the most successful reintroduction of a bear in the world,” a claim to fame that seems well-deserved.
Means encouraged East Texas landowners to continue good management practices because “good black bear habitat is essentially good, healthy forested landscape.”
Van Dellen and others are optimistic that the same type of recovery for the black bear can happen here, if everyone works together. Ultimately, the successful return of the black bear to both East and West Texas is in the hands of the landowners and citizens of our great state.