The Bears and the People Today
“This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.”
"Bears are soulless, godless, rampaging killing machines." Stephen Colbert
For centuries, we have lived in a state of war with bears, killing them out of fear, or for food, or for fun. In today’s more conservation-conscious society, bears are protected in
We certainly have little reason to fear the bears on our own account. Since 1900, 63 people have been killed by black bears in
The lingering sense of bear as foe can be traced to our long past of viewing the bear as competition and to visions of maddened bears tearing at cabins trying to get at the pig fat. In areas where the bear is coming back—especially in West Texas—some of the factors that led to its extirpation still exist, including ranching. But ranchers’ attitudes definitely have changed somewhat over the last century, and the black bears appear to live peacefully and co-exist with the ranchers for the most part.
The very fact that the bears returned and established a population reflects a change in land stewardship approaches on the part of private landowners and government in the area. They have cared for the land well enough that there is food, shelter, and water for the bears to enjoy. Unless private landowners cooperated, no comeback in
Education has been part of the key to this change in outcome. Landowners know more about bears; they understand that these largely vegetarian animals are not really that much of a threat to their livelihood. According to the
In fact, in the recent years of drought, the
The odd thing is that the idea of bears not really presenting a threat to livestock is not a new one. In 1905, Bailey wrote about bears in
But ranchers today seem to have absorbed the attitudes of their counterparts to the south, where Mexican ranchers even in the 1930s tolerated bears and viewed them as a status symbol, an approach that seems to getting a foothold among landowners in
This assistance from people is not just a bonus for the bears, it is a requirement. A friendship between bears and humans must be maintained if recolonization is to become permanent. Animal populations rarely re-establish themselves in old territories without human help, and certainly not in the absence of controls on human behavior. Wolves in
The black bear populations in
What West Texas really is for the bears is, as naturalist Frederick Gehlbach put it, a series of mountain islands in desert seas, with the populations in northern Mexico serving as a sort of continental repository of bears, some of whom venture onto the desert sea and find their way to the sky islands in the mountains of the Trans-Pecos. As each sky island builds its population, it can serve as a stepping stone to nearby habitats, a way-station for the wandering bear searching for more habitat and resources.
Our new-found friendship with the black bear will probably not extend itself to the grizzly. What serves as a series of way stations for a black bear would not suffice for the grizzly. A recolonization of grizzly bears anywhere in the Southwest is highly unlikely because no reservoir of the great bears remains. As the extirpation of the grizzly moved inexorably to its empty end, populations became more and more isolated and were too small to serve as reservoirs for distant habitats. Each isolated population eventually disappeared and the grizzly vanished from the Southwestern edifice, never to return. There is no northern
Our new friend, the black bear, has had better luck. The arrival a small population of bears in the Black Gap National Wildlife Management Area and the subsequent increase in bear sightings throughout West Texas spurred the
By the spring of 2001, officials had captured 19 bears, fitting 13 of them with collars for radio tracking and monitoring their moves by ground and air. Research has involved analyzing bear scat for information on diet and monitoring their preferred scavenging grounds for food availability. Early results demonstrated an established population that, as we have learned, may be quite closely related. On the upside is the fact that the project also documented migratory subadults moving in from Mexico, a good sign because these wanderers bring with them their own individual sets of genes, adding to the variation of the population. Researchers from federal and state government and from universities continue their work with the bears in West Texas, closely watching this small population that has brought so much hope to the future for bears in
One reason bears or other animals find it difficult to recolonize an area is that human activity has fractured or erased their former habitats. Unless the niche opens for a bear to settle into, the bear has no role to fill in a particular area. Humans, with our buildings and freeways and reservoirs and dams, alter the landscape and render incapable of supporting the original wildlife. This insuperable obstacle to recolonization is especially powerful in the case of large carnivores, which typically need lots of territory and comparatively more resources than other organisms.
Bears are no exception to the large-carnivore rule; they do best with a range of contiguous forest or riparian corridors rather than a quilt of farmland, desert, and population centers. However, they can adapt to human encroachment, as seen in
A quilt of varying human activity is exactly what bears find in East Texas, so different from the well-preserved, scarcely populated
The bears do try. They cross over from neighboring states fairly frequently, with about 12 reliable sightings in 2006 alone, according to Nathan Garner,
As the bears enjoy continued success in the nearby states, we may see more of them lumbering into
Human attitudes also must be suitable, and in
It may take awhile for bears to get a foothold in East Texas comparable to that they have gained in
Even in the 1940s, hope existed that bears could return to and thrive in
One suggestion made in the 1940s for bear recolonization was to rely on human introduction of animals from other areas. Rumors that the park service was doing just this in
Bears had disappeared from
The sudden appearance of a new drive to create a park was accompanied by the equally sudden appearance of fantastic rumors spread by park opponents. Local people were warned that all local schools would be closed; that millions of visitors would come and take over their homes; that their children would be eaten by government-sponsored bears and panthers. The old bogey of economic disaster was dragged out and refurbished. A park would drive out the lumber industry and destroy all jobs; loss of tax revenue from lands taken over by “the feds” would drive small towns into bankruptcy. No one seemed to heed the argument that a park would bring in a new industry (tourism) to complement an old one (timber). That, of course, might undermine the monolithic control of lumber interests in the region.
The national preserve was established eventually in the 1970s, in spite of leaders in the area like Congressman John Dowdy, who once referred to the Big Thicket as a “mosquito-infested swamp” and referred to the Sierra Club as the “Sahara Club.” It was the work of another congressman, Senator Ralph Yarbrough, that helped make the Big Thicket Preserve a reality. But the people of the Big Thicket find themselves in a situation similar to that of the great bear hunters: They love the Thicket, but they rely on the industries that destroy it, and economic realities always trump conservationist desire.
Nevertheless, there is a place for the bear in
Whether the black bear will return and prosper in
Watching bears recolonize can tell us about much more than bears in
The last question to consider is, Why do we care whether bears make it back to
And that is the point. We don’t think about it much in our daily lives because the bears have disappeared from our daily lives. For settlers and ranchers, the bears’ disappearance helped the people survive and relieved them from a certain measure of hardship. But today, when we want to leave our daily lives behind, we want to find something different out there, something that says, “This is not part of my day-to-day existence; this is something special.” Traveling to a national park like
I’ll never forget my first wild bear sighting. It was outside of
Caputo, Robert. 2002. Mother Bear Man. National Geographic, March. pp. 88-101.
Gehlbach, Frederick R. .1993.
Garner, Nathan, personal communication.
Gunter, Pete A.Y. 1993. The Big Thicket: An Ecological Reevaluation.
Morzillo, A. T., L. J. Jianguo, and A. G. Mertig. 2005. Attitudes about and opinions toward black bears in east
Onorato, David P. and Hellgren, Eric C. 2001. Black Bear at the Border: Natural Recolonization of the Trans-Pecos. In Large Mammal Restoration: Ecological and Sociological Challenges in the 21st Century. Maehr, David S., Noss, Reed F., and Larkin, Jeffery L.,
Patoski, Joe Nick. 2006. “Back in black: with or without a stocking program, the black bear is returning to
Powell, R.A., Zimmerman, J.W., and Seaman, D.E. 1997. Ecology and Behavior of North American Black Bears: home ranges, habitat, and social organization. Chapman & Hall: NY.
Smith, K.G. and Clark J.D. 1994. Black bears in
Willingham, Emily. 2001. Return of the Bears.
The complete book, When Worlds Collide: The Troubled History of Bears and People in Texas, is now available as a Kindle download on Amazon. Thanks for reading.