Black Bears Making a Slow and Natural Return to East Texas
By Dana Goolsby
In East Texas, just before dusk as the setting sun’s rays pierce through pockets of the pines, visibility is limited. If you are sitting in a deer stand, you will notice that with every passing moment your surroundings begin to fade and merge together into darkness. At 100 yards a dark shape fumbling around beneath a game feeder can be hard to identify, but would most likely be presumed to be a feral hog. But take another look, and make a positive identification, because that dark hog-like shape could be a black bear.
It would be less expensive to travel to Canada and pay a hunting outfitter than to be convicted of killing a Texas bear.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) has documented several reliable bear sightings in recent years throughout east Texas. Photos of bears taken by motion-sensitive cameras have verified sightings.
Studies are also being conducted by researchers at Stephen F. Austin State University to better determine the distribution and population of black bears in eastern Texas. This research involves the collection of hair samples for DNA analysis and the assessment of suitable forested habitats most likely to support bears.
Black bears can grow to weigh about 350 pounds and stand 6 feet tall.
East Texas possesses the elements for a good bear habitat, including food, cover and areas with few humans. There are about 12 million acres of undeveloped private and public land throughout East Texas.
Davy Crockett National Forest is off U.S. Highway 60, lying west of Lufkin, Texas and east of Crockett. The forest covers a total of 161,842 acres (252.9 sq miles) in two counties. Located in Houston and Trinity Counties, the forest is centrally located within the Neches and Trinity River basins. The Davy Crockett National forest is ideal terrain for a black bear to hide as well as thrive. It is simply a matter of time before the first Black Bear is seen meandering about through the bottom lands, beneath the pines in Houston County.
The American black bear once occurred throughout the state of Texas. Black Bears were almost gone in Texas by the end of World War II because of unregulated hunting and habitat loss. For nearly a century, the bears were hunted and killed for their meat, fat for cooking and hides for tanning, as well as for the sport of competitive hunting. Decades ago, east Texas bear hunting even attracted the nation’s top bear enthusiast, Teddy Roosevelt.
The bear numbers dwindled until only a few regions of the state held established bear populations. Their last strongholds in East Texas were in the swamps and thickets of the Big Thicket Region.
Black bears are steadily returning to the very place that exterminated them years ago. Over time, black bears have the potential to replace or refill a gap in the ecosystem that they filled prior to their extinction in the area
Bears have been making a slow and natural return to Texas since 1984. There have been periodic but rare sightings of black bears within East Texas. There was a resurgence of sightings within the East Texas region that followed a release of 161 black bears from Minnesota by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in an effort to boost populations of the species in Louisiana.
TPWD officials think most of the bears that have made their way to Texas are young males. Young male Black bears wander into Texas, usually lone males at first, then later, females. Forced to leave a territory by older male bears, young males will roam hundreds of miles looking for suitable habitat and mates. The swamps, forests and thickets of the Big Thicket Region of east Texas have much to offer. An investigation is underway to try to determine the number of bears inhabiting the area now.
One popular misconception is that bears are being relocated and stocked in East Texas.
Nathan Garner, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s regional wildlife director for East Texas stressed that is not the case.
“We are not going to bring bears in at all unless we had a fairly large (public) support,” he said, adding that studies have shown general public support for the return of the black bear to East Texas.
The question is; are the wandering black bears just sewing their wild oats and sightseeing, or are they here to settle down and stay awhile?
“It all depends on the lady bears,” said Garner.
That is the deal breaker. When a young male bear begins actively seeking a mate, it is a powerful driving force of nature. If he does not find a mate, he will travel as far as he must to find her.
While a young male bear is likely to roam 100 miles or more from his mother’s range, female bears are not so adventurous.
“The daughters stay closer to their mothers,” Garner said.
At some point in the future, a decision to bring in female bears might be considered. However, extensive studies would have to be made prior to such an event. Stocking may be unnecessary as bears continue to move slowly and naturally into the forests of east Texas from adjoining states where there are growing, expanding or stable black bear populations.
Black bears are protected in Texas and are on the state threatened species list. Only in deep east Texas do black bears get additional protection through listing as a threatened subspecies under the federal Endangered Species Act. Bear hunting of any kind has been prohibited statewide in Texas since 1983.
A committee of stakeholders comprised of representatives from state, federal, and private entities collaborated to develop the East Texas Black Bear Conservation and Management Plan and form a coalition group called the East Texas Black Bear Task Force. The East Texas Black Bear Conservation and Management Plan adopted by TPWD in 2005 uses a partnership approach to facilitate the recovery of black bears in eastern Texas through cooperative efforts.
This plan was produced in the spirit of conservation for the Specific strategies addressed in this plan strive to promote public awareness through outreach while providing public and private biologists and willing landowners with the technical knowledge to increase and/or enhance suitable black bear habitat throughout East Texas. The purpose of re-establishing the bear is a viable part of the native wildlife community of East Texas.
Black bears are usually reclusive and solitary animals that shy away from human contact, but with more bears coming into East Texas, it is possible that hunters or campers could accidentally walk up on one. Bears are primarily vegetarians, feeding on blackberries, grapes, acorns, leaves and other forest vegetation. People are more comfortable with the return of the black bear, after realizing that 90% of its diet is vegetarian. However, black bears are opportunistic feeders and their diets change with seasons. No confrontations between bears and people have been reported.
Bears are still rare in Texas and very few Texans have ever seen one here. Black bears are also normally shy and not aggressive to humans. This combination of factors makes it unlikely that you or someone you know will encounter one.
Even so, never approach a bear. If you do happen to encounter a black bear at close range in the wilds of Texas, it is advisable to talk in a calm manner while backing away slowly. Do not make direct eye contact and do not run. If a bear approaches you, stand your ground and raise your arms, backpack or jacket to appear larger. If the bear continues to approach, yell at it to scare it off. If a bear is visiting your deer stand or campsite, scare it with rocks, a slingshot or an air horn.
Hunters need to know their target and not mistake a bear for a feral hog or javelina. It is a violation of law to kill a black bear in Texas.
Public opinion surveys of residents in several Texas counties show general support for the return of black bears, while also indicating a need for more easily available information about bears.
If you happen to encounter the elusive Black 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.
If a Black bear approaches you, do not panic, do not shoot and do not approach. Do not 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 is trying to see, hear and smell you. NEVER approach a bear cub.
Anyone can receive the recently created brochure “Bear Safety in Mind” from TPWD by calling one of the following regional offices nearest you: East Texas/Tyler — (903) 566-1626.