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Back in Black

With or without a stocking program, the black bear is returning to East Texas.

By Joe Nick Patoski

It’s usually little more than a footprint in moist soil or a dark blur darting across a dense green forest, leaves rustling and branches cracking in its wake. Some sightings are more specific: a mammal as big as a person, only heavier, that can stand up like a human and run like a deer. A few reports in recent years are quite detailed, like the one in February 2005, on Interstate 10, one-fourth of a mile west of the official Texas welcome center in Orange, when traffic screeched to a halt as a bear rambled around the highway median. Or the regular sightings at an RV park on the Louisiana side of Toledo Bend Reservoir. None should be too surprising — since the subject at hand pays less attention to state lines than people do.

All of them bear witness, as it were, to the obvious:

Black bear are coming back to East Texas.

“What we’re seeing here is a regional bear expansion,” Nathan Garner declares matter-of-factly. An affable bear of a fellow (more black bear than grizzly, actually), Garner is the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s regional wildlife director for East Texas, overseeing a staff of 60 covering 57 counties. He also knows a few things about bears. His interest began as a child growing up in the Houston area and continued as a college student pursuing a biology degree at the University of Houston, then at the University of Montana, where he worked on a border grizzly project under Charles (Mr. Bear) Jonkel. His graduate studies at Virginia Tech included tracking 47 black bears around the Appalachian Mountains.

The black bear is afraid. By nature, they're less aggressive because they didn't have to be aggressive to survive as a species. They survived by retreating or climbing.

He can tell you that black bear can actually be brown, red or even blond, stand 5 to 6 feet tall and weigh up to 400 pounds, that they’ll eat anything and that they are not aggressive towards humans. “Grizzlies will charge when trapped,” Garner says. “The black bear is afraid.” Unless you get between a mother and her cubs, that is. Black bear coexist with deer. “By nature, they’re less aggressive because they didn’t have to be aggressive to survive as a species. They survived by retreating or climbing.”

Garner will also tell you that Bud Bracken of Honey Island had 305 bear hides when he stopped hunting and that, while the last native Ursus americanus in the state may have been shot in Polk County almost 50 years ago, 47 verified sightings throughout the Pineywoods, the Big Thicket and along the Sabine River since 1977, as well as hundreds more anecdotal sightings, have been recorded since.

To prove how ripe East Texas is for the American black bear (Ursus americanus americanus) and its subspecies cousin, Ursus americanus luteolus, the Louisiana black bear that historically roamed East Texas, Garner takes me on a tour of a couple hundred miles’ worth of bear habitat in the central and southern Pineywoods.

Even as black bear were being hunted out of Texas, Garner explains, recovery programs in adjacent states were underway. Beginning in 1958, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission moved 254 bears into the Ouachita and Ozark mountains from Minnesota and the Canadian province of Manitoba, the most successful restoration of a large carnivore population in the U.S. One hundred sixty-one black bear from Minnesota were moved into Louisiana between 1964 and 1967 to bolster the few hundred Louisiana black bear remaining. The ban on hunting bear in Texas in 1987, and regionally in 1992, when the Louisiana black bear was listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act, further bolstered bear numbers to the point of expanding their range as close as a few miles north of the Red River in McCurtain County in southeast Oklahoma and along the Sulphur and Sabine rivers. A permanent black bear population is just a matter of time.

The bigger question is, Will Texans greet the bears with open arms or loaded ones?

Garner is responsible for coming up with the answer. He’s invested four years heading the committee that recently completed the East Texas Black Bear Conservation and Management Plan, 2005 – 2015. Now he’s spearheading the ETBB task force and still keeping options open for the most controversial element of the plan — relocating 30 females with cubs to sites in East Texas under TPWD oversight.

The migration of black bears into a former habitat is viewed as a positive indicator for the ecosystem by black bear advocates, who see long-term benefits in increased eco-tourism.

As a biologist, Garner sees the obvious benefits in bringing back wildlife to its former native habitat. But as an administrator, he understands too well the wariness some humans have warming up to the idea. “How dare you put my child at risk?” one mother challenged him at a public meeting. For that reason, Garner makes clear that the relocation idea will move forward “only if there is strong support.” If public sentiment stands against TPWD helping to establish colonies, the project won’t happen.

But in one sense it doesn’t matter, because black bear are coming anyway.

Surprisingly, public reaction has been largely positive. Pollsters from Michigan State University surveyed 3,000 Texas households and 485 people who showed up at 10 town meetings that TPWD conducted around East Texas. The results were illuminating. The majority of those attending the public meetings supported the return of black bear to East Texas, and 70 percent of the written comments by mail were positive. The largest turnout was the 108 people who showed up in Kountze, in the heart of the Big Thicket. Meetings in Texarkana and Beaumont attracted the fewest. The greatest opposition was voiced by residents living near the Big Thicket preserves. Garner is not satisfied. “I want 75 percent,” he says.

A significant element of the East Texas bear plan is the mix of public and private stakeholders. Representatives from the Big Thicket Association, a landowners group from Newton County, the Texas Department of Transportation, Temple-Inland Corporation, the East Texas Beekeepers Association and the Alabama-Coushatta nation all had a seat at the table alongside various state, federal and NGO entities. The value of the partnership becomes evident when Garner veers south, then west of Lufkin to South Boggy Slough, where Don Dietz lives. Dietz is a biologist for Temple-Inland Corporation, the timber products giant that controls more than 1.2 million acres of East Texas woodlands, including South Boggy Slough.

Healthy black bear habitat translates into healthy forests, as far as Temple-Inland is concerned, Dietz explains, as we drive past clear-cut pine plantations, conservation forests of hardwoods that will never be touched and SMZs, the streamside management zones that provide critical riparian habitat for wildlife on the move, including black bear.

“We would not be for the bear if we thought it would negatively impact how we manage our timber,” Dietz states frankly. “Temple-Inland wants to make money off timber. As it is, biodiversity is in our best interest. We have seven bald eagle nests on T-I property in Texas.”

Dietz points out how selectively clear-cut land encourages growth of sedges, grasses and berries for bear to feed on in early spring. Pine plantations provide trees for denning and loafing. Mixed forests provide berries through summer. Hardwood bottoms in the SMZs provide downed woody debris full of grubs and other insects for bears to eat and drop the nuts to satisfy black bears’ dietary needs in the fall. If TPWD’s relocation program gets the green light, Temple-Inland has committed to hosting release sites in several locations, according to Dietz. Bear in the woods are good for the land and good for business. “They’re coming,” Dietz says. “I had dinner with a guy two weeks ago in San Augustine County who’s seen a bear twice in the past few weeks.”

“That’s 20,000 acres of the best black bear habitat in East Texas,” Garner says as he drives away. “That habitat offers bears everything they need. The Neches River corridor is the keystone. When I drive through the country, I think bear will do better on managed lands because they’re managed for diversity.”

Somewhere around the Angelina National Forest, he turns from the main highway and promptly gets lost on a network of unmarked back roads surrounded by forests and woodlands. “There’s groceries and cover in there,” Garner says, squinting into an impenetrable thicket. “It’s the roads that present the problem,” he says, changing direction again, “because roads bring people.”

The majority of those attending public meetings supported the return of black bear to East Texas, and 70 percent of the written comments by mail were positive.

Many roads also lead to hunting club cabins tucked in the backwoods, which is one asset Garner hopes to tap into. Hunters get back in the deepest woods, so they’re likelier to ID bears. Their cabins are also destined to be bear magnets if the clubs don’t take measures to properly store and dispose of garbage. Communicating with hunting clubs now will save a lot of hassles in the future, Garner believes.

The nuisance factor looms large. Black bear may be shy and prone to run, but they adapt quickly to humans. Garbage cans, raiding of deer feeders, bee hives and stock pens are all potential problems. As omnivores, black bear have been known to occasionally dine on small animals, be they wildlife, livestock or house pets. If measures aren’t taken to keep garbage lids secure, pet food out of reach, wildlife feeders monitored and so forth, bad stuff can happen.

What seems relegated to the past is human hostility towards bears. Some folks are still inclined to regard them as pests and vermin that should be eradicated, such as realtor Fuzzy Harmon, who told the Lone Star Eagle weekly of Marshall, “It makes about as much sense to spend money on bears as it does to stock Lake O’The Pines with piranha.” (For the record, piranhas are not native to East Texas; black bear are.) But Harmon’s sentiment is clearly in the minority.

“We’re never going to change those folks,” Garner admits. “There are people against this who are antigovernment and still mad about the Big Thicket,” portions of which were declared a national wildlife refuge, he acknowledges. “But I didn’t walk away from any town meeting discouraged.”

Garner’s patience with such concerns and fears, warranted or not, reflects one blueprint he’s followed while articulating Texas policy, the Black Bear Conservation Committee plan initiated in 1990 to promote the recovery of the Louisiana black bear. The Baton Rouge-based BBCC, whose members include Garner, Dietz, TPWD’s Ricky Maxey and several other East Texans, oversees the successful bear recovery programs in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Oklahoma, while raising public awareness and putting in place a plan for dealing with bears that cause damage, in concert with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Louisiana Fish & Game Commission.

In Jasper, at the TPWD offices, Garner hands me off to district wildlife biologist Gary Calkins. Calkins knows the southern hot zone of potential bear habitat along the Sabine and Neches river corridors well enough to fret about the area’s future.

“Bottomland hardwood forest is the most diverse ecosystem in East Texas,” he says. “It’s home to 500 vertebrates and 1,150 plant species, but 75 percent of these forests have been lost since settlement.” More loss, he fears, is just around the corner. While Temple-Inland remains a dominant presence, Calkins has observed other large timber companies such as International Paper and Louisiana Pacific selling off tracts to forest investment companies (among them, Harvard University) more interested in short-term profit than long-term conservation plans. “Some are pretty good stewards,” Calkins allows. “But others have no interest in biodiversity. They want to cut and get out. The northern part of East Texas has already gone through these growing pains. Here in the southern end, we had it made for awhile.” But with the short-term profit mentality moving in, he says, “all of it is at risk.”

Perception issues are less worrisome. He’s heard the comment, “My kids are going to be at the bus stop and the bears are going to eat them,” a dozen times.

“I try to explain that I’m more concerned about the neighbor’s dog running loose that’s going to hurt their kids.”

While cruising through a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campground on the western shores of Lake B.A. Steinhagen between Jasper and Woodville, Garner surveys trashcans and camp sites that may have to be retrofitted. He breaks into a “Hey, Yogi” voice, assuming the cartoon character Boo Boo Bear spying a “pic-a-nic basket.” Garner is trying to emphasize the need for humans to dissuade bear.

I’m sold.

Having had close-up encounters with black bear in Minnesota, in the Mexican state of Coahuila and at many zoos, I have been persuaded by Garner’s tour that East Texas is primo bear habitat, as long as the people of East Texas let it be. But I am also impatient enough to hope public support will materialize for a restocking program that will bring them back sooner rather than later.

See A Bear?
Call TPWD. One of the bear plan’s goals is to resolve human-bear conflicts. If you see a bear, or have a bear problem, call your TPWD game warden or wildlife biologist or the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at (800) 792-1112 or at regional offices in Tyler (903) 566-1626, San Antonio (830) 569-8700, Kerrville (830) 896-2500 and Alpine (432) 837-2051
Don’t feed the bears. Period.
What if a bear approaches?
Don’t panic, don’t shoot and don’t approach. Don’t run, either, says the TPWD Black Bears in Texas brochure. Back away slowly, with arms overhead to increase the size of your appearance, talk firmly and in a low pitched voice. If a bear stands on its hind legs, it is not preparing to attack. It’s trying to see, hear and smell you. If a bear is in a tree, leave it alone. It’s afraid. And NEVER approach a bear cub.

Westside Bears: an Unlikely Success Story

In the late 1980s, black bears from the northern state of Coahuila, Mexico, began migrating across the Rio Grande into the Trans-Pecos region, returning to a home range that had been unoccupied for nearly 50 years. The recolonization movement was a natural process, surprising many wildlife experts.

“If you look at all of Texas, the eastern two-thirds of the state had the best habitat, precipitation, vegetation and ecological system for bears,” says David Holdermann, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department endangered resources specialist who lives in Alpine. “The Trans-Pecos, ironically, has one of the lesser natural carry capacities to support bears.”

But the black bears (Ursus americanus) continued to migrate — driven perhaps by scarcity of food, drought or some natural instinct that told them there were richer resources, remote mountains and sparse human population to the north.

Holdermann says his best guess is that there are now around 80 black bear in the Trans-Pecos, primarily in the southern sections of Brewster, Terrell and Val Verde counties — some of the state’s most remote, inaccessible terrain.

Of that figure, the breeding population probably numbers around 30 to 40 bears, says Holdermann. Extensive state and federally funded research in the past decade has focused on determining the extent of recolonization, including monitoring bears’ movements through radio collaring, habitat analysis and field studies of bear sightings and bear depredations.

A biological key driving the bear recolonization process is the philopatric factor, which means a female black bear will allow her female offspring to remain on her home range. However, male offspring are forced to disperse outside the mother’s home range.

“Because of this pattern,” says Holdermann, “males will range farther outward, searching for a new home range with mates. Consequently, what we see is a slow, incremental expansion by females into new areas. Males are generally finding everything they need to expand except suitable females.” Male black bears may range over a 100-square-mile area.

The resident breeding black bear population is believed to occupy an area covering the Chisos Mountains in the center of Big Bend National Park, the Dead Horse Mountains and the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area (near the eastern edge of the park), the Del Norte Mountains (south of Alpine), the Davis Mountains (near Fort Davis) and the Guadalupe Mountains (south of the New Mexico border). Bear sightings, usually involving males, have also occurred in other areas of West Texas, but far less frequently.

The primary black bear breeding habitat in the Trans-Pecos is the Chisos Mountains.

Raymond Skiles Jr., the chief wildlife biologist in Big Bend National Park, estimates the current number of female black bears in the park to be around 15. The figure is down from a peak female population of around 30 bears in 2000, although Skiles believes the number is now increasing again.

“We had a precipitous decline starting around 2000 – 2001, following a failure in the food supply because of drought conditions,” says Skiles.

Even though black bears appear to be in a new recolonizing phase, he warns, “The population isn’t safe and secure here. We don’t know now how many bears are breeding females. It’s a very tenuous existence. We need a couple of good years to get that breeding population back up.”

Since 1987, Skiles has devoted a large portion of his time to studying black bears and devising programs and methods to lessen the chance of conflict between bears and park visitors.

“We’ve had to go through an immense change to adapt to the bears,” he says. Changes include an extensive public education program, the creation of bear-proof trash containers and food-storage lockers for campers, bear-proof landfill operations for waste disposal and the development of a bear management and research team. The work has paid off: no major incidents involving bear-human encounters have occurred in the park.

TPWD wildlife specialist Holdermann recalls an example of male bear migration that occurred in Alpine in June 2003, when a young, mature black bear was found wandering in the downtown area. Holderman received an emergency call at his home about 1 a.m. He loaded a dart rifle with Telazol, an immobilizing chemical that interrupts an animal’s nerve transmission system.

“We darted it in one shot and it took five minutes to be immobilized and drop from the tree,” he recalled. Nicknamed the “Courthouse Bear,” it was fitted with a radio collar and transported and released in the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area — all within five hours. In a few months, the bear had migrated 75 miles north to the Del Norte Mountains, about 15 miles south of Alpine, where it remained until radio contact was lost earlier this year.

Public opinion on bear recolonization is narrowly divided, according to a recent TPWD-sponsored survey. A questionnaire mailed to 1,100 landowners in nine Trans-Pecos counties who own at least one section of land received a 42 percent return response. Black bear recolonization was not favored by 46 percent, favored by 40 percent and not answered by 14 percent.

Holderman notes that the TPWD approach to the recolonization process is not proactive. The recolonization has occurred naturally. The state’s primary role has been to monitor the process, gather research data, attempt to minimize threats of bear-human contact and educate the public.

The migration of black bears into a former habitat is viewed as a positive indicator for the ecosystem by black bear advocates, who see long-term benefits in increased eco-tourism and the return of a sense of “wildness” to the region.

Private landowners are an important part of any natural recolonization process, Holdermann notes, since 96 percent of the bears’ range is on private property.

“Once we’ve fully characterized how landowners feel about the black bear population, at that point we need to step back and ask what it means to the future of the bear population,” he says.

“The negative attitude toward black bears reflects a strong pattern that has grown from the frontier experience — it generally extends to all large predators. It’s a legitimate point for people to be concerned about property. The development of a successful bear strategy will have to include those private property interests, as well as the creation of a viable black bear habitat.”

— Roy Hamric

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