Field of Science

The Bears of Texas - Chapter 8: The Bears and the People Today

Chapter 8

The Bears and the People Today

“This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.” Casablanca

"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 Texas and cannot be killed for fun or food. But what about the fear?

We certainly have little reason to fear the bears on our own account. Since 1900, 63 people have been killed by black bears in North America, few of them in recent memory, and you are far more likely to be struck by lightning or killed by a dog than to be killed or injured by a bear. So what do we really fear?

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 Big Bend would have been possible. Bears do not care about boundaries, borders, or property lines, and they often wander where they are not “allowed.” If property owners in the area had not tolerated these wanderings, the Big Bend bears would not have made a comeback since the loss of even a single bear could have had such a devastating effect on the population.

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 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, many landowners in West Texas find themselves living in bear country and managing it with few conflicts. Not only do the landowners co-exist peacefully, but they aid in tracking bears, providing information to the parks department about bear sightings and indirectly helping bears by providing water for livestock during drought that the bears also have access to.

In fact, in the recent years of drought, the West Texas bear population might have disappeared entirely without this water assistance from property owners. Nevertheless, a 2006 Texas Parks and Wildlife survey of residents of the Trans-Pecos found that landowners remain divided on the issue, with 40% favoring bear recolonization and 46% not favoring it.

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 West Texas that “at present the black bears do no serious damage to stock, and it is greatly to be hoped that their numbers will not be materially reduced.” Of course, the reduction was so material that bears virtually disappeared.

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 West Texas today. One Trans-Pecos rancher of a few years back refused to kill bears even when they did attack livestock; a cowboy who raised pigs on the rancher’s land lost all of his stock to bears, and the rancher paid the cowboy for the loss rather than letting the cowboy kill the bears. The attitude that bears conferred status and were not a threat preserved the population in Mexico through the 20th century, and it may help preserved the recolonization of West Texas today.

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 Yellowstone would never have returned had not people transported them there and maintained the necessary vigilance to ensure their survival. Although the bears in West Texas are an anomaly because they initiated their own recolonization, success requires human support.

The black bear populations in West Texas have undergone phases of success and retreat. During one phase, Mexico served as a source of bears, but the Trans-Pecos region was the sink; bears disappeared from the area and the population numbers sank almost to zero. But as records indicate, bears maintained their contact with the “sink,” with males especially making occasional forays north of the border and warding off the finality of extinction.

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 Mexico for the luckless grizzly bear.

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 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to begin researching ways to create a beautiful friendship with the bears through careful management of both people and bears. They have sought data on the food habits, denning ecology, and movements of desert bears for information that will lead to better management of bears with minimal bear–human conflicts.

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 Texas.

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 New Jersey and other eastern states with high human populations and bear populations that are flourishing.

A quilt of varying human activity is exactly what bears find in East Texas, so different from the well-preserved, scarcely populated West Texas habitat. Just across our borders, in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and especially Arkansas, bears have what they need to flourish: miles and miles of unbroken, preserved forest land. For this reason, although East Texas attitudes toward the bear are definitely friendlier since oil replaced the piney woods rooter as a basis for the economy, the bears need more than the human hand of friendship to flourish. The East Texas economy also increasingly relies on tourism and eco-tourism, and some part of this boom is because people want to see the bears.

The bears do try. They cross over from neighboring states fairly frequently, with about 12 reliable sightings in 2006 alone, according to Nathan Garner, Texas Parks and Wildlife’s resident East Texas bear expert. Some of these events over the years have been more than sightings—a small male met his death in the teeth of a car grill on Interstate 30 west of Mt. Vernon on the Hopkins/Franklin county line in May 1999. Others encounters were more positive and scattered over several counties throughout East Texas. The most common source of black bears currently appears to be Oklahoma, although Arkansas and Louisiana also serve as a bear repository.

As the bears enjoy continued success in the nearby states, we may see more of them lumbering into East Texas, looking for more food and shelter. Although long-existing human settlement stands in the way of recolonization, a study done by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department indicates that there is enough suitable habitat to support a small black bear population in the area. Research from 2005 indicates that East Texas could sustain a population of as many as 2,200 bears.

Human attitudes also must be suitable, and in East Texas, the evolution has been slow. While land in East Texas has reverted from tilled fields back into forest, and the people have flowed from rural to urban centers, bears still suffered from the long, mutual history of distrust. In the late 1950s, a bear rumored to be the last black bear in the Big Thicket—although it may have simply been a wandering visitor from out of state—met its fate at the end of a gun in Livingston. The citizens responsible then barbecued the 450-pound animal and ate it, reporting disappointedly that it tasted “gamey.”

It may take awhile for bears to get a foothold in East Texas comparable to that they have gained in West Texas. As Pete A.Y. Gunter said in his book, The Big Thicket: An Ecological Reevaluation, “Big meat-eaters are spectacular; they are dramatic; and their existence in a habitat attests to its character as a real wilderness. It takes more than a remnant panther or bear, however, to constitute a wilderness ecology.”

Even in the 1940s, hope existed that bears could return to and thrive in East Texas. In 1937, four pet bears gained their freedom in the Big Thicket, but as might be expected, they quickly disappeared. Even with the Thicket under federal protection today, a permanent bear population remains a distant dream.

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 West Texas surfaced in the 1950s, but they had no basis. Although no bears have entered Texas with human assistance, they have been reintroduced in neighboring states. The reintroduction of the black bear to Arkansas has been described as one of the most successful translocations of a large carnivore; bears eventually recolonized areas of forest far from the original reintroduction sites, and there is no doubt that some Texas wanderers came from Arkansas’s woods. One female was captured near Dangerfield, Tex., in 1980 and had Arkansas tags in her ears.

Bears had disappeared from Arkansas in the early 20th century, and in 1958, the state’s Game and Fish Commission started the reintroduction process, moving 254 bears from Minnesota into the Ozark and Ouchita mountains over a period of 11 years. Today, there are well over 3000 bears in the region. Why did the reintroduction work? Lots of great habitat that was bear habitat in the first place, translocated animals were wild, many release sites were used, and the service released mostly males to establish territory before releasing females. Our extended hand of friendship resulted in great success on both sides.

Why can’t Texas do it too? Consider the reaction of East Texas residents to the simple idea of establishing federally protected lands in the Big Thicket in the later 20th century:

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 East Texas, if the bears can find it and the people can tolerate their presence. A 1998 Texas Parks and Wildlife study showed that a corridor along the middle Neches River, running through Angelina, Jasper, Polk, and Tyler counties, offers the best place for a bear to live. One attractive feature of the corridor is that it runs through the Angelina National Forest, made up of bottomland oak and upland pine.

Whether the black bear will return and prosper in East Texas lies in the hands of the Fates, the residents, and the lumber companies. While there is growing support among East Texas residents for bear re-introduction, the support is not overwhelming enough to convince the state park service, and people still voice concerns that their children will be attacked by bears at school bus stops. Nevertheless, 70 percent of all comments received via email, letter, and public hearings in 2004 and 2005 indicated support for the new East Texas Black Bear Conservation and Management Plan that will restore bears to East Texas. The ending year of the plan is 2015, and only time will tell.

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Watching bears recolonize can tell us about much more than bears in Texas. We can monitor conservation genetics and find out what happens in a population with low variability when it returns to its old stomping grounds. We can find out what stops bears from dispersing and what encourages them. By monitoring how the bears respond to their fragmented habitat, we can gain knowledge about how other large mammals might be similarly affected. And because bears are what scientists call “sexy”—anything that appeals to the public in spite of its esoteric nature—the public may be more interested in learning about conservation through efforts to help and support the bears.

The last question to consider is, Why do we care whether bears make it back to Texas or not? How many of us, in our daily lives, walking down the sidewalk or driving home from work, pause to think, “Gee, it would be great to see a bear right about now”?

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 Big Bend or a preserve like the Big Thicket and having the chance to see the tenacious, secretive, shy black bear can top the list of the most interesting things you’ll ever do in your life, much as hunting bears topped Teddy Roosevelt’s list.

I’ll never forget my first wild bear sighting. It was outside of Jasper National Park in Canada, and we saw the black bear as we blew past it going about 55 miles per hour. Literally rendered speechless in that moment, I gestured wildly to my husband to turn around. There it was, by the roadside, smaller than I expected and blithely snipping the heads off yellow flowers with its carnivorous teeth. Blue-black, smooth, shiny, and wild, standing in contrast against the green and gold background—it is something I will never forget, and I’ve seen many wild bears since then. My only regret is that I didn’t see my first bear in my homeland of Texas. Thanks to efforts in Big Bend and East Texas, others may have that chance.

References

Bailey, Vernon. 1905. Biological Survey of Texas. USDA Biological Survey, No. 25. Washington Gov’t Printing Office.

Caputo, Robert. 2002. Mother Bear Man. National Geographic, March. pp. 88-101.

Gehlbach, Frederick R. .1993. Mountain Islands and Desert Seas: A Natural History of the U.S.-Mexican Borderlands (The Louise Merrick Natural Environment, No 15) Texas A&M University Press: Bryan, TX.

Garner, Nathan, personal communication.

Gunter, Pete A.Y. 1993. The Big Thicket: An Ecological Reevaluation. University of North Texas Press: Denton, TX.

Morzillo, A. T., L. J. Jianguo, and A. G. Mertig. 2005. Attitudes about and opinions toward black bears in east Texas. Technical Report, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Michigan State University. 69 pp.

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., Eds. Island Press: Washington, D.C.

Patoski, Joe Nick. 2006. “Back in black: with or without a stocking program, the black bear is returning to East Texas.” Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, February.

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 Arkansas: Characteristics of a successful translocation. Journal of Mammalogy 75(2):309-320.

Texas Game, Fish and Oyster Commission. 1945. Principal Game Birds and Mammals of Texas: Their Distribution and Management. Press of Von Boeckmann-Jones:Austin.

Willingham, Emily. 2001. Return of the Bears. Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, August. pp. 46-51.

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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.

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