Field of Science

Time out for bears--three of them

[Three bears in the forest. Photo via Flickr.]

Time out from bears...for bears.

As the last four posts on this blog may have conveyed, I have a bit of an obsession with bears. I'm not Timothy Treadwell and don't view myself as a bear whisperer or anything, but one of my greatest hopes--and, truly, fears--has been to see a bear while out hiking. I've been lucky enough to see many, many bears in the wild, including brown bears in Alaska and Canada, and black bears in the United States and Canada. But nothing--nothing--matches the bear encounter we had today.

It was a beautiful, glass-clear sunny day, and we decided to walk a familiar hiking path, one that's fairly well frequented and runs along a mountain river. It's such a busy place, in fact, that a park road runs parallel to it until the path--and the river--duck under the road beneath a bridge.

My two sons and I were hiking this trail, pausing every few minutes to consult our guidebook, trying to identify plants we saw. We found bush honeysuckle and wax currants and a beautiful fir tree, and I'd just stopped to take what has become an annual photo of this lovely rushing river, encroached by trees along its banks. While I was taking the picture, my older son lingered near me on the trail, but the other moved on ahead about 10 feet.

We resumed our walking, when my older son and I, walking together, noticed two men suddenly rush from the bridge railing where they'd been standing and hustle across the street to their car. It was obvious that something had sent them into a frisson of excitement--they were smiling, yet taking shelter behind an SUV. In the split seconds that followed, my older son and I observed the behavior to each other, one of the men saw us and held up both hands, yelling out, "Stop! Stop! There are three bears coming your way!", and my younger son, the one a few feet ahead, did stop, immobilized by, yes, the sight of three bears, a mother and two cubs, rounding the corner from under the bridge, heading straight for him.

He started to run, so my first action was to say, firmly, "Don't run! Walk!" Both of my sons, harkening to oft-repeated lessons for just such an event, then walked in measured steps toward me, even as the sow with her two cubs seemed to gather her own offspring near her and slow her steps. I took the short seconds my sons required to get near me to extract my can of bear spray from my backpack side pocket, and with their elbows hooked into mine, we again used our measured steps to move away from the mama bear and her cubs, toward the road, across the road, and over to the SUV where the two men were. They didn't know it, but my intent was to take refuge in that SUV should the sow decide she wanted to come in our direction.

But she didn't. She behaved like a bear, following the path for a few more feet before she and her cubs crossed the river and moved through the trees and toward a ridge. Her behavior throughout had been calm and bear like. She wasn't interested in us, and we did our best to show her that she by all means had the right of way. I did notice that while we were present, she kept her cubs close, but after they'd crossed the river, the group spread out in the trees a bit, the cubs even running and cavorting some. Indeed, they were not unlike my own cubs once they'd determined a sufficient margin of safety was present and could release the adrenaline rush in their own human expressions.

We walked for awhile on the opposite side of the road, watching her and her cubs now at a safe distance of many, many yards. Eventually, we crossed back over to our path but turned back to our starting point, having lost interest in heading under that bridge on this day. My children felt the coincidence of time and delay, how our lingering over a plant here, to take a photograph there, had led us to this point in time, how the men who yelled "stop" likely saved us from an even closer encounter with a possibly more negative outcome. Of course, as the human mother involved, I felt all of it, too. We reminded ourselves that during this season of hyperphagia, as these bears had so amply demonstrated, they could be anywhere at any time, and we needed always to stay close together and take great care.

The excitement will take some time to wear off for all of us. If you're a fan of the Ursus genus, you know what I mean. That's about as close as anyone could get to them in the wild unscathed, and it's damned lucky--thanks to coincidence of time and delay--that it was no closer. But oh...the thrill of that encounter.

The Bears of Texas: Chapter 3 - Bears to the East, Bears to the West

Chapter 3

Bears to the East, Bears to the West

“In the early days, that’s how they lived. Bear meat n’ honey. Nothin’ better, they usta say.” Joseph Francis (Hub) Thompson b. 12/24/1901, on bears in Sabinal Canyon, South Central Texas, in Bear Meat and Honey

Driving through East Texas in recent years, my closest encounter with a black bear has been a sign on I-10 outside of Beaumont, inviting me to stop at a roadside gas station to view their caged bear. I have never stopped. But bears were once abundant in East Texas before the last survivors became trapped in gas station cages to draw tourists. The decline of the black bear began in the eastern piney woods and flowed in a wave westward, following the movement of settlers and livestock. The bears of West Texas were the last to go, and they may be the first to make their comeback, although park service officials also have their eye on the eastern borders.

But before its disappearance, the black bear could be found almost anywhere in the state from north to south to east to west, wherever there was good habitat for a black bear. It remained common in the western part of the state as late as the 1920s and ‘30s. Even in 1948, travel guides were still reporting that tourists could find “black bear in ... the Big Bend country—the Christmas and Chisos mountains.”

Identifying exactly where bears lived or where they became extinct is complicated by the offhand treatment of bears until later in the 20th century. They were shot and skinned constantly, but their bones went uncounted, and no census of carcasses or kills was kept. Vernon Bailey, famed turn-of-the-century chronicler of Texas wildlife for the federal government, noted the problem in his landmark inventory of the animals of Texas in 1905:

Of many of the larger game mammals, and especially of the deer, bear, and panther, it has not been possible to secure enough material to satisfactorily establish the present geographical limits of the species and subspecies, but it is greatly to be hoped that the growing interest in natural history will inspire local hunters and residents of the country to send specimens of these vanishing forms to the National Museum before it is too late. ‘The skull that is left in the woods or thrown away would often aid in solving one of these problems.’

Unfortunately, Bailey’s hope for hunters and rural residents to find inspiration in natural history did not come to fruition; in fact, the reality was quite different (current Ursus americanus range, left).

Further complicating issues of decline or extirpation of the black bear is confusion over species or types. The species Ursus americanus has been split into subspecies, and in Texas, the Louisiana black bear of the east is federally threatened, while the Mexican black bear of West Texas is state-listed as endangered, as of this writing. In spite of the subspecies distinction that resulted in separate listings for these types, the fossil record indicates that there was once a continuous species range for the black bear across the South, from Florida to Texas, and that fossil material, at any rate, does not merit a distinction among now geographically isolated populations. Older records focusing on living black bear specimens identified the Louisiana black bear (Euarctos luteolus) and the American black bear (Euarctos americanus). Also included in these records is a reference to the Texas grizzly (Ursus texensis Merriam), another “type” specimen based on the finding of the single skull in the Big Bend area.

This single grizzly skull specimen proved so unequivocal to some that a state-produced book on principal game animals mentioned that the “Texas grizzly” was found formerly only west of the Pecos River. The book, Principal Game Animals of Texas, also listed two separate species of black bear for Texas: the Louisiana black bear for the eastern and southeastern parts of the state and the American black bear, which it said formerly occurred throughout the state in suitable habitat, except the “Brush Country” of South Texas.

Although the 20th century saw severe declines in bear populations in Texas, the close of the millennium brought forth new hope for the black bear in both the east and the west. In the 1990s, the state had 482 reports of bear sightings for a single year, most of them in the Big Bend area, but a few in the Guadalupe Mountains and the panhandle, and some from East Texas. Almost 500 sightings for the entire state in a single year seems like a good number, but in the beginning of Texas’ existence, according to some reports, 500 bears in a week would have been more likely, no matter where in Texas you traveled.

Panhandle bears?

Bears prefer tree nuts and berries and other tasty treats that require a certain amount of plant growth in a particular area. The Panhandle of Texas (right) does not immediately come to mind as an area that fits this description, but bears may have once roamed even these windswept, treeless vistas. Some sources state that bears populated the canyons below the Cap Rock in the Panhandle, secret wendings carved into what, at first look, appears to be an endless stretch of prairie. But the canyons harbored the bear necessities, including vegetation and bison, and may well have once been home to a thriving bruin population. Adding to the mystery of the bear’s history in the Panhandle is the apparent grizzly skull reportedly found in the Red River in 1950, although this finding has not been confirmed and the skull has apparently been lost. Bears from New Mexico may make occasional forays into the Panhandle today.

Bears in North Texas

Even the area of Texas that brings to mind big hair, big oil, and big buildings may once have harbored black bears along with its settlers. In the mid-1800s, the Dallas/Fort Worth area may well have been “full of black bear and wild hogs and turkeys.” In a few brief decades, any wild bears or hogs or turkeys certainly disappeared with the arrival of more people, and the contradiction of the past and present serves as a reminder of how much we have changed things in a very short period of time.

Bears of the Hill Country

The Hill Country of Texas (left) provides daily reminders of how much things have changed. Northwest Austin, now home to two-story houses, garden homes, and gated communities, may well once have been home to black bears who feasted on madrone and acorns and deer when they could get it. The acorns and deer remain—the latter somewhat too abundantly—but the bears and madrone are gone.

The bears made their departure from the land of bear meat and honey in the mid- to late-1800s, although they may have persisted into the 20th century in the Edwards Plateau region (right) southwest of Austin and Kerrville, where Bailey reported some still existed in 1902. But by 1902, most of the bears were gone from the heart of the hills, from Elgin, Beeville, and Uvalde.

As in the Panhandle, Hill Country bears often occupied canyons, enjoying the bounty nature provided and remaining as secretive and solitary as possible. Even the people who lived there found it to be God’s country; Joseph Francis “Hub” Thompson, who was born Christmas Eve, 1901, and was a member of the first white settler family in the Hill Country, called it the “best damned scenery God ever made. A man could kill anything here he wanted to then, I guess. Had lots of wild hogs here. Javelinas. Lots of bear.” He went on to recall that settling in this area of Texas required only a few things of a hardy colonist:

“To settle this part of Texas, all you had to do was fight the Comanche, the bears, and the wolves, survive the floods or outlast the droughts, and the land was yours.”

They had to fight the bears because the bears wanted the same things they did. “There used to be bear and buffalo all through this canyon,” Hub recalled. “Grandpa said he usta see ‘em a lot. Said they seemed to like the shelter of the canyon,” and apparently, the people did, too. Hub goes on to rhapsodize about the wonders and abundance of bear meat in the area.

Despite the apparent abundance of bear meat, the bears themselves may not have been very large, although reports as to size and weight vary tremendously. Ray LaFayette Walton, who was born in 1903 and lived in the Texas Hill Country, recalled that the “canyons there were ideal habitat for what they called Mexican bears. The Mexican bear is not very big as bears go. The biggest one I ever saw was a male weighed about 100 lbs.”

South of Austin, in San Antonio, Tex., there is a historic hotel called the Menger (left). One of its claims to fame is that Carrie A. Nation left the marks of her ax in the wood of its bar, a sign of her distaste for its alcoholic offerings. Its other claim to fame is the family Menger, one of whom fancied himself a naturalist and wrote a book, published in 1913, about the beauties of the land around him. The book included hazy photographs of some of the animal specimens he admired and some disturbing pictures of elaborate designs made from hundreds of rattlesnake rattles. But this Menger did wax eloquent on the living animals of Texas, as well.

“These vales and hilly forest regions (in Boerne and Guadalupe valleys) in olden days (and, to some extent today, yet) were full of large wild game, especially deer, wild turkey, and bear, roaming around the steep canyons, postoak brush, and dense forests.” Menger would not recognize San Antonio today, one of the United States’ 10 largest cities.

Menger wrote in 1913 about the “olden days,” and by 1902, where bears had once been abundant in the Texas Hill Country and surrounding areas, their existence was questionable. Reports to Vernon Bailey from field naturalists in 1902 include the following list that tells a story of loss in few words:

  • Brenham—formerly common along the Brazos, now extinct
  • Elgin—formerly common, now rare or extinct
  • Sour Lake—still common in the swamps near here; a few killed every year. An old one and two cubs seen during July
  • Uvalde—a few are still found in the canyon of the Nueces
  • Seguin—in 1904, they were said to have been exterminated years ago, though formerly common

It seemed that everywhere in and around the Hill Country in 1902, bears were “formerly common” and now rare or extinct, with the occasional sighting in sheltered canyons and out-of-the-way places. But a century later, the tenacious bear could be making brief forays into the hills. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department reported in 2000 that “from the Big Bend to Austin, bear sightings have surprised biologists and the public alike…at least one sighting per year of black bears in the Hill Country is not uncommon.” The state wildlife department says that these animals may really be wild animals looking for a place to live or food to eat, or they could simply be escaped captive animals. Regardless of their source, the bears’ ability to regain a foothold in the increasingly human-populated Hill Country is doubtful. It is likely, according to the department, that these Hill Country sightings are simply wanderers from the west, not established denizens of the juniper- and live-oak-covered hills.

The Bears of East Texas

The East Texas bears have a history different from their Hill Country brethren. Black bears ranged through the canebrakes and river bottoms throughout most of East Texas at the time of first settlement, but they probably were most numerous in the central eastern thickets of Polk, Jasper, Tyler, and Hardin counties close to the Louisiana border. A chain carrier helping surveyors establish the first county lines during the 1840s reported seeing “bear tracks as numerous as hog tracks in a hog pasture.”

Within 50 years, things had changed in northeast Texas. When Bailey was completing his comprehensive survey at the turn of the 19th century, he found that in the eastern part of Texas, bears (which we know as the Louisiana black bears) were abundant in the southern swamps and thickets, but less prevalent in the northern forests of Texarkana, Waskom, and Jefferson.

At the time of the first settlement, in about 1840, Jacob Pool moved with his family from Montgomery County Alabama to Polk County Texas, in covered wagons. He intended to become a hunter and brought along his wife, three sons, and three daughters. Jacob and sons hunted the Big Thicket mercilessly, and it has been said that on one hunt they killed 13 black bears, all weighing 700-800 lbs. each (this unlikely weight is another example of the huge variation in reported sizes found in the records). They also hunted deer and wild turkey. After tanning, the skins of the bear and deer were bundled and sent to Houston. Bundling for bulk sale ceased when a law was passed requiring hunters to have individual buyers because the public thought they were getting too rich. Jacob Pool died in February 1852, and his wife and children were still listed in Polk County, Tex.

Although bears were reported as still being fairly common in some parts of the Thicket in 1899, they apparently were finished off the in the lower Big Thicket, near Beaumont, by 1910. Hunting largely did the trick. A single pair of hunters with their dogs would kill about 40 bears every winter in the Big Thicket at the height of the bear-settler conflict, from the late nineteenth to the turn of the twentieth century.

Once again, Bailey’s 1905 report paints a clear picture of decline in East Texas from north to south in a very few words:

Reports from field naturalists in 1902:

  • Texarkana—now very rare, one killed a few years ago
  • Waskom—formerly common, now very rare
  • Jefferson—very scarce, one killed near here a few years ago
  • Antioch—formerly common, now extinct
  • Rockland—now very rare or quite extinct
  • Conroe—a few still found in the Big Thicket, 15 miles south of here
  • Beaumont—a few still found in the forest NW of here

Bailey reports that around 1883, the extermination of the bears began in earnest, when a pair of hunters could kill almost 200 bears in a couple of years.

There were many hunters, alone and in pairs. “Uncle Bud Brackin claimed 305 Big Thicket bears to his credit...,” but the reasons for hunting the bears varied from the predictable—protection of self, family, or stock—to rationales that may seem odd to city dwellers today. One turn-of-the-19th-century resident of the Thicket, Mr. W.O. Victor, reported to Bailey that “he knew where several bears were living in the Thicket and that he hoped to kill some of them later in the season when they became fat. ...During the past 10 years he has killed 8 or 9 bears, mainly for the protection of his bees.”

Bees may have provided one rationale for killing bears, but hunting for sport was the overwhelming reason by the time the numbers of black bears in East Texas began serious decline. Reported L.L. Kiene in 1906: “The Big Thicket of Texas is known throughout the South wherever there is a man who enjoys the chase of big game. It is now recognized as one of the few refuges for the black bear... There are also wild turkeys and bobcats to be found within its depths; but when anyone speaks of the Thicket now, it is always associated with bear.” That association would very soon become only a memory. Kiene, who reported on a great Texas bear hunt in 1906, recognized this fact: “The passing of the North American black bear is only a question of a few years. The Hooks boys (avid local bear hunters) and their friends killed 16 bears in the Big Thicket last year (1905) by persistent hunting, which was a big record. Mr. (Ben) Lilly, who has spent the greater portion of his life hunting, says there are only 15 bear left in the Big Thicket (1906) and that there are but 40 in all the southern bear territory, including Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas.” As you will see, Ben Lilly probably knew what he was talking about.

In his 1966 writings, the editor and publisher of the Kountze town newspaper chronicled the downfall of the black bear in the Big Thicket, where Kountze sits, due north of Beaumont. “The real hero of the Big Thicket,” Archer Fullingim (right) wrote, “is still the Louisiana black bear, which has been extinct in the Thicket for at least 35 years. In 1905, the man who gave Kountze its slogan (The Town with a Sense of Humor), Ben Hooks, and his brother Bud killed 15 bears. The next year, the great hunter Ben Lilly hunted bear in the Thicket with these brothers. Last year (1966), a man brought me a picture of what he said was the tree in which the last bear was shot in 1927.” Fullingim adds that he often thought there was “less humor in Kountze than in any other place I know.” Interestingly, in 21st century discussions of restocking East Texas woods with black bears, folks from Kountze stand out as being most disposed to support such a plan. Perhaps they still consider the Louisiana black bear a hero.

Although the 1927 photograph may have represented the last bear around Kountze, other bear sightings in East Texas persisted through the 1940s. A man by the name of Harrison of Bay City in Matagorda County, southeast Texas, reported that he saw an old female and several tracks of cubs 15 miles east of Bay City on March 28, 1940. Field studies from 1938 through 1943 showed that although widespread extirpation of the bears in East Texas had occurred by 1940, some few bears may have persisted in the Thicket in Hardin County (one report was from January 1944) and dense woodlands of Matagorda County south of Houston.

In what must have been one of the most surreal bear encounters in Texas, Jane Long (left), a resident of Galveston Island and famed as the first known settler to enter Texas and have a child, features in a tale in which bears appeared to be able to walk on water. After a particularly harsh winter storm that froze Galveston Bay, Jane Long and her servant Kian witnessed animals walking across the bay, including bears. They also took advantage of the fact that the quickly freezing ice had trapped some ducks by their feet and harvested the hapless animals for dinner.

Without question, bears disappeared from the Big Thicket by the late 1950s. They lingered longest in the southern part of the Thicket, where the last native East Texas bear met its demise in the late 1950s in Polk County, where Jacob Pool had brought his family a century earlier to great success in the bear-hunting arena. But reports and legends lingered longer; even as late as the late 1960s, there were still “a lot” of reports of bear sightings in the Thicket. Two cubs were reported near Kountze (The Town with a Sense of Humor), and a state representative from the same area reported having hit a bear with his car at about 4 in the morning. A coon hunter and his dogs also reported having jumped a bear by accident, but in the end saw only the bear’s tracks by a creek.

In the twenty-first century, the bears may be on their way back in East Texas with some help from population expansions in border states. In Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, the black bear numbers have increased thanks to research and management efforts, and confirmed sightings on the Texas side of the border occurred through the 1990s and with increasing frequency in the ‘00s. Males, most prone to wandering and with the largest ranges, have crossed borders that are meaningless to them and made their way into Texas, usually on quest for new territory. But their visits raise difficult issues for Texas wildlife experts.

Texas isn’t what it used to be, and what was once great bear habitat now lacks the trees and foods they love and threatens even slim success with deadly roads and other habitat encroachment. One very detailed sighting from 2005 involved a bear who halted traffic on I-10 as it wandered around the highway median. Experts even fear that poaching—illegally hunting the bears to death—may once again be the factor that keeps their numbers down, although poaching the federally threatened animal would result in severe federal and state penalties.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department previously had the attitude that if the bears wanted to return, they would have to do it themselves. However, they have recently created a Black Bear Task Force to work together in partnership to implement a new 10-year East Texas Black Bear Conservation Plan (PDF). Some of the most suitable bear habitat remaining today lies along the Neches and Sulphur rivers, and surprisingly, the plan has some strong support from hunters and conservationists alike. Whether or not the plan is carried out or succeeds depends almost entirely on the people. Conservation and management efforts have been so successful in neighboring states that Arkansas has allowed regulated bear hunting and Oklahoma's governor signed a law in 2006 allowing hunting; in Arkansas alone, the black bear population has reached about 3500.

The Bears of West Texas

In West Texas, the bears have shown a tendency to restock themselves, primarily from a population reservoir in northern Mexico, and that is good news for an area where bears also play a lynchpin role in the ecological balance. As the twentieth century opened, black bears were still comparatively numerous in the Trans-Pecos region of Texas, which includes the Chisos, Davis, and Guadalupe mountains. To move from one habitable spot to another, bears had to cross miles of the unwelcoming desert that separated these mountain ranges. Bailey, in his 1905 survey, meticulously recorded his observations, testifying for future generations how different things were for bears just 100 years ago.

Bailey conducted his West Texas explorations over the course of a few years, and he consistently found signs of the abundance of bears in the Trans-Pecos region.

“In the Davis Mountains, black bears hold their own surprisingly well against unusual odds,” he wrote. “In July 1901, I found abundant sign, fresh tracks, and turned-over stones along the crest of the high ridges on the east slope of Mt. Livermore, and again in August 1902 found sign equally abundant in the canyons on the west slopes. In following up a deep canyon west of the main peak on Aug 13 after a heavy rain the previous day, I saw fresh tracks of bears of at least three different sizes—cubs, yearlings, and adults—and found numerous little diggings in the black mellow soil where roots or beetles had been unearthed, and many stones freshly turned over for the ants and beetles beneath them.”

The bears left their signs everywhere. Bailey, walking through a gulch, saw a buckthorn bush that had been ripped from the ground, roots and all, and denuded of its ripened berries. Nearby lay the unmistakable proof that bears were responsible—scat littered with the undigested skins and seeds of the fruit. Climbing an eastern slope, he found further evidence, this time scat with the leftovers of juniper berries and older scat containing easily identified acorn shells. As we will see in upcoming chapters, the bears’ taste for berries and acorns has remained unchanged and plays a strong role in whether or not its comeback in West Texas will be a permanent one.

Black bears prefer oak and conifer forests, and the Chisos, Davis, Chinati, and Guadalupe ranges provide these habitats wherever they rise 1500 feet or more above the desert. These islands of mountain habitat in a sea of desert drew bears with their dietary offerings, and even after the extirpation that took place in the 20th century, they still prove irresistible to the exploratory bear.

As it turns out, though, bears do not rely solely on the merits of acorns and berries for sustenance. There grows in West Texas a cactus-like plant from which humans derive sotol (right), or the (in)famous mescal, by distilling the head of the plant. The sotol is actually an agave and looks very much like yucca, with a skirt of bumpy, pointy leaves and a central stalk reaching several feet above the base. In addition to mescal, the plant also provided materials for the weaving of baskets, mats, sandals, or rope. But distillation of the sotol head results in 80 to 100 proof alcohol. One West Texas ranchman, out viewing his property after a typical torrential desert downpour, came to a patch of sotol that had been prepared for his stock to eat by burning and splitting. The rain and the opened plants had mixed, forming a solution that fermented in the leaves of the scorched sotol. The fermented beverage proved irresistible to the bears in the area, and when the rancher rode up, several drunken bears were tearing around on the scene, ripping up the plants and raising hell.

Just south of this Texas region lies the northern mountains of Mexico in the state of Chihuahua. Although the existence of the grizzly in Texas has been in doubt, it certainly resided at some point in Chihuahua, along with its cousin, the black bear. The rise of hunters with firearms resulted in the reduction of both species, north and south of the border. Bailey recorded the facts of the popular annual bear hunt that took place in the area, describing the hunts as “firmly established” institutions. “In November a large crowd gather with camp wagons, hounds, and saddle horses for a week’s bear hunting,” he reported. “In 1900 10 bears were killed by the party, and in 1902 four were killed.” It was the West Texas frontier equivalent of a family outing in the park.

As in East Texas, bear hunters used hounds in the Trans-Pecos; records from the early twentieth century show that one hunter, Sam G. Luedecke, killed 79 bears during the period of 1920 to 1935 on one West Texas ranch, demonstrating both the abundance of bears at the time and the vigor with which they were hunted and destroyed. The process of extirpation actually began many years earlier, however. A report from 1875 indicates that one hunter killed five bears in single day’s work in the Guadalupe Mountains, although this feat apparently was not notable enough for the hunter’s name to be attached to it.

Bears also featured in the tales of western lawlessness that prevailed at the end of the nineteenth century in the Trans-Pecos. In one tale, Jeff Webb, boss of the D&W Ranch, was murdered, and a bear proved to play a major role in the event. Webb, drunk and stumbling one evening, stole a pet bear from a corral where his horse had been tethered. Carrying the cub in front of him on his saddle, he took off for his camp, which lay north of Alpine, a comparatively busy West Texas hub today. He had gone a couple of miles when a typical desert monsoon storm hit, blinding him. Suddenly, a shot came through the torrents and the darkness, and Jeff Webb was dead.

In 1894, a Mexican inventor and occasionally wanted man named Victor Ochoa was captured, and while he languished in the Reeves County jail in the county seat of Pecos, he revealed the truth of what happened to Jeff Webb. Ochoa and a companion were riding through the storm, going from San Angelo to Presidio at the Texas–Mexico border, when in the darkness, Webb’s horse bumped into the horse of Ochoa’s companion. Fearing that the unseen rider of the mystery horse was about to kill them, the companion shot in the dark and the two turned to escape; however, the cry of what they thought was a child made them turn back. Instead of finding a human child, however, they found the stolen pet bear cub, crying and whimpering on the dead man’s chest. The record does not indicate what happened to the bear cub.

By 1945, black bears had become scarce in the Trans-Pecos because of hunting, ranching, and drought. Incendiary stories circulated in the 1950s that the National Park Service planned to introduce bears into the area carried no merit, but the bears did begin reintroducing themselves in the 1980s, much to the surprise and pleasure of the human residents of Big Bend National Park in the southern elbow of West Texas. Although a bear was sighted there in 1969, most agree that this particular specimen was a wandering male from northern Mexico; however, since 1984, breeding females made the desert trek and the park has supported a population of about 30 bears in recent years.

Being one of lucky ones to sight a bear in Big Bend National Park is a memorable experience, as one experienced park visitor reported after seeing a female with a cub in 1991:

I encountered a black bear sow and at least one cub this morning in Green Gulch (May 2, 1991) at the corner of Pulliam Ridge, just below the confluence of Maple Canyon and Green Gulch. I had just completed a bird population survey and was returning to my vehicle when I heard the cub’s loud cries ahead of me. Knowing that a sow with cubs can be very aggressive, instead of continuing on and, perhaps, surprising them, I worked my way onto a high point closer to the roadway that offered a better view of the drainage. The cub continued to cry out, and I could see movement at the bottom of the creekbed. Then all was silent. Apparently, the sow had detected my presence and had quieted the cub. A few minutes later, I observed a dark object moving down the drainage and out of sight.

All told, Trans-Pecos region probably is home to fewer than 100 black bears, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Rick Taylor of Uvalde. The best guess in 2006 was 80 bears. But the Trans-Pecos is distinguished from East Texas by the fact that its population of bears appears to be a resident, breeding population, thriving in the isolated wilderness of West Texas. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, West Texas has two established populations, one in Big Bend and the other in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the latter possibly receiving some contributions from New Mexico populations. It is likely that the protected, isolated nature of these places has much to do with their being the only welcoming habitats for returning bears.

One story about a small bear in Alpine lends credence to the notion that protected habitats may be the only habitats for bears these days. In June 1996 in Alpine, that bustling West Texas hub where Jeff Webb stole his bear cub a century before, several people sighted a small black bear on a golf course. One person even photographed the little bruin. Shortly afterward, the small bear was found dead—shot to death—on the east slope of Sul Ross hill, the dominating land feature of Alpine. In West Texas, although many residents welcome the bear’s return, some apparently still feel that “the only good bear is a dead bear.” Even though this dead little bear served as a target for human spite, another ursine visitor to Alpine fared better in 2003. The young male was wandering around downtown when the parks and wildlife folk received a report of his activity. They darted him and relocated him south to the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area. The bear, who became known as “Courthouse Bear,” wandered 75 miles north into the Del Norte mountains, getting within 15 miles of Alpine before his radio collar failed in 2006.


Abernethy, Francis E., Ed. 1986. Tales from the Big Thicket. UT Press: Austin.

American Society of Mammalogists. Mammals of Texas Online listing. Online document:

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

Bear Meat and Honey. 1990. Bear meat and honey: an oral history of the Sabinal Canyon. Utopia, TX.

Black Bears. 1999. News Department, Texas Fish and Game Magazine, January.

Black Bears in Texas. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Online document:

Brown, David E. 1985. The Grizzly in the Southwest: Documentary of an Extinction. University of Oklahoma Press: OK.

Cox, Jim. 1996. Bears at Our Borders. Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine 54(6):48-52.

Cox, Mike Cox. 1996. The Grizzly Bear in the Southwest (Book Review). Lone Star Junction, August.

Gonzalez, Catherine Troxell. 1982. Jane Long, Mother of Texas. Eakin Publications: Burnet, TX.

Jameson, John R. 1996. The Story of Big Bend National Park. Austin.

King, Howard, pseudonym. 1948. Howard’s original Texas guidebook. Amarillo, Texas.

Kurten, Bjorn. 1963. Fossil Bears from Texas. Texas Memorial Museum. Pearce-Sellards Series, No. 1.

Madison, Virginia. 1968 (rev. ed.). The Big Bend Country of Texas. New York.

Menger, R. 1913. Texas Nature Observations and Reminiscences. Guessaz & Ferlet Co.:San Antonio, TX.

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.

Phelan, Richard. 1976. Texas Wild. Excalibur.

“Public support grows for reintroducing black bear in East Texas.” AP. Austin American-Statesman, August 7, 2006.

The Pools of Montgomery and Walker County, Texas and Montgomery Co. Alabama. Online document, personal homepage: (site now down; accessed 9/18/06).

Raht, Carlysle Graham. 1919. The Romance of Davis Mountains and Big Bend Country. Rahtbooks Co: El Paso, TX.

Sitton, T. 1995. East Texas Bear Hunts. Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, February. 42-45.

Taylor, Rick. personal communication.

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

Wauer, Roland H. 1997. For All Seasons, a Big Bend Journal. UT Press: Austin.

West Texas Black Bears. Online document. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. (no longer available).


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.

The Bears of Texas: Chapter 2 - The Pleistocene Bears and the Age of Mammals

[Guadalupe Peak, Guadalupe Mountains, West Texas. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.]

Chapter 2

The Pleistocene Bears and the Age of Mammals

Before humans showed up, the land that would become Texas provided a haven for more than the black bear. During the ice ages of the Pleistocene, the polar ice caps—continental glaciers we all know so well for their prominent role in global warming debates—formed, and glaciers spread far from the extreme northern portions of the Americas deep into what would become the United States. The epoch was punctuated by episodes of glaciers receding and advancing, and with each advance, as water became trapped in ice, the sea levels fell and the tropics became cooler and drier.

Because of the unbreakable association with ice, when we talk about the Pleistocene Epoch, which began about 1.8 million years ago, we think about ice ages. At the end of the last ice age, people and ice came together in a fateful combination for North American fauna. This last age, when mammals ruled the Earth, ended about 10,000 years ago, a timepoint that hails the beginning of the Holocene Epoch and the presence of humans on the North American continent. The Holocene is the second epoch of the Quaternary period and continues today. We might think of the Holocene as the Age of Humans, although who the true rulers of this epoch are remains to be seen; the Holocene is, as yet, a youthful epoch.

What makes an Ice Age? The name belies the reality. Although ice prevails during some periods of an ice age, it alternates climatic dominance with periods of warmth such as the warming trend we are experiencing today. During an ice age, water becomes trapped in the ice, causing the sea levels to drop. When this drop occurred during the late Pleistocene, humans took advantage of the land bridge that the receding oceans revealed between Asia and North American and made their way into what is now Alaska. Large furry land animals—mammals—dominated the scene at the time because they had the required homeostatic mechanisms to survive the strange temperature fluctuations of the Pleistocene and flourish under such conditions. But their ability to flourish in the face of human pressures remains a controversy of history.

The last 100,000 years of the Pleistocene are known as the Wisconsinan glacial age, the longest Pleistocene glaciation. The glaciers extended into what would someday be Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, and even into what would become the American Southwest. In addition to atomizing everything in their paths, the glaciers in advance and retreat could also affect areas of the continent they didn’t reach, including what would become Texas.

With each period of receding glaciers, the ice released its water, sea levels rose, and climates became warmer and wetter. Plants and animals took part in this climatic cha-cha, moving northward as glaciers receded or southward in front of their advance. Heading south during periods of glacial advance, Arctic trees, such as the spruce, and Arctic mammals like the musk ox made their appearance in the southern United States; today, musk ox circle their wagons only in northern climes like Alaska and northern Canada. Conversely, during periods of Pleistocene warming and glacial retreat, animals of the south were able to spread northward; an interesting note is that in Europe, England was populated with hippopotami, hyenas, lions, and elephants during these periods. During Pleistocene glaciations in North America, glaciers crept southward, reaching into what would become Colorado and northern New Mexico, but the icy conditions didn’t extend into Texas, which was cool and humid. Some organisms that made it south found themselves trapped in refugia when the weather warmed again; the incongruous maple groves of Guadalupe Mountains National Park in West Texas—one of the few possible grizzly habitats in the state—are an example of such “lost” populations.

Although many animal species we see around today existed in the Pleistocene, a few of the “megafauna” have disappeared, including the sabertooth cats, mammoths, and giant sloths that roamed the Texas landscape during the period. Mammals, like the dinosaurs of the Mesozoic, had their own age in the late Pleistocene. This time period—the past 250,000 years—is known to vertebrate paleontologists as the Rancholabrean Mammal Age, named for the fauna uncovered in Rancho La Brea, Calif. These famous tar pits, located in the middle of downtown Los Angeles, were a giant mammal trap that preserved perfectly the skeletons of many different large mammals, including mastodons, saber-toothed tigers, and giant wolves. Ritually prepared ancient human remains have also been found in these pits. The abundance and diversity of mammals found in the La Brea pits tell the story of an age when mammals (besides humans) ruled the Earth. Bears certainly had a share in that kingdom, and Texas, with its welcoming lack of ice and comforting humidity could have been one of its capitals.

A Pleistocene tour of Texas

If we had been able to explore Pleistocene Texas, we would have found conditions that seem desirable in today’s periods of drought and extreme heat. The land flourished from the abundant precipitation that graced the plains and hills. Forests of giant ferns and giant conifers provided shade and shelter and hiding places for animals. Today, the only remnants of these primeval forests are the drooping bald cypress found in the swampier areas of the state, but a walk in the woods during the Pleistocene would have been a lush, quieting experience in complete contrast to the fractured and patchy forests we have today.

In Texas, the land was cooled by the southeastward movement of streams that carried tons of water into the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the major arteries would someday have names like the Colorado, Brazos, Red, and Canadian rivers, and they became relatively fixed in their wanderings during this time. As ice melted north of Texas in the summer, rains would cause rivers to overwhelm their banks and carry their deposits downstream. Following the rivers and escaping the ice were some incredible Ice Age animals. When these animals died, the rivers that they followed covered them in sediment, preserving their secrets for us to uncover thousands of years later.

Were we to travel back to the Pleistocene just west of what is now El Paso, we would stumble onto the Potrillo volcanic field, which was active until about 40,000 year ago (ya). Even today, remnants of this field serve as reminders of the boiling, roiling activity that left behind the rounded cinder cones, lava flows, and ash flows that dominate west of the city. Sometimes, the underearth pressure of lava-produced steam would become so great that huge volumes of river sediment exploded into the sky, settling back down into dimples in the earth that today measure as much as a mile wide. These depressions, called maars, dot the western landscape around El Paso. West Texas, so picturesque and serene today, was a mysterious wildland in the Pleistocene, when the ground shook with volcanic eruptions and huge reptiles—although not the long-extinct dinosaurs—waded through its swamps. The swampy, volcanic atmosphere conjures a different El Paso from the dry, hot-and-cold nature of the desert today. Today, west of El Paso is so much like a moonscape that in the 1969, Apollo astronauts trained in its maars for their moon mission.

If we followed the Rio Grande east to the valley of South Texas, we would think our Pleistocene time machine had made a mistake and somehow transported us to some part of modern-day Africa. The South Texas of the Pleistocene was very much like an African savanna, populated by herbivores such as horses and mammoths. The mammoths would have been our first clue that we weren’t actually in modern-day Africa. South Texas also had lush forests, especially along its rivers, where browsing animals could feast on twigs and leaves in the undergrowth.

As the weather changed and humans showed up in greater numbers, the large mammals that dominated the Pleistocene began to disappear. Today, some of the last remnants of this Age of Mammals roam the forests of North America in the form of black and brown bears. Of course, they once roamed in greater numbers when people weren’t around competing with them for land and food or just killing them for fun. Texas provided a great haven for bears, with its caverns and forests and climate to attract prey. Tasty treats for bears roamed the Texas of the Pleistocene; giant bison, musk oxen, deer, huge sloths—all were available prey for a wily predator. And wily predators abounded, from the cave bears to the North American lion (above) to the saber-toothed cat.

Continuing our time travel of the Pleistocene, we’d see a Texas nothing like the state today. Giant armadillos once migrated here from South America before becoming extinct. Yes, today we have armadillos, but they are microdillos compared to the five-foot giants that once roamed here. We also might have encountered the occasional imposing grizzly or a six-foot ground sloth lumbering warily through the forest, possibly concerned about the imposing grizzly. A scan of the plains might have revealed llamas or even camels, both North American originals that emigrated to other continents in the Pleistocene, the camels moving to Asia and Africa, the llamas to South America. If we timed our arrival for the end of the Pleistocene, we might even have seen some people who looked very much like us.

Where Dallas is today with all of its imposing, glassy buildings and urban sprawl, there once roamed mammoths just as impressive as anything we find in the capital of North Texas today. Instead of big oil and big hair, Dallas was much more about big animals. Not something you’d expect to see traveling the Interstate 20 corridor today, but the sand and gravel beds of the Trinity River (right) have yielded their historical secrets, telling us of a time when mammoths, saber-toothed cats, big turtles, and bison wandered its banks.

South Texas seemed to flourish fauna-waise during the Age of Mammals with species that no longer roam its hills and plains. These included mammoths, mastodons, saber-toothed cats, camels, giant ground sloths (Paramylodon harlani, left), and huge vultures, presumably large enough to deal with the massive amounts of carrion provided by the giant mammals who died. At Texas’ western edge in the Guadalupes, 11,000 years ago animals like the ground sloth, tiger, North American rhino, and mammoth wandered the groves of this mountain range that would eventually become a national park and that boasts Texas’ highest peak, Guadalupe Peak, at 8,749 feet. The Guadalupes have undergone tremendous change through the ages—at one point, the entire range was an ocean reef that included Carlsbad Caverns.

A bear history

Bears evolved from a dog-like carnivore—an order of animals that includes wolves, raccoons, weasels, cats, and mongooses. The first bears originated in the Palearctic region (what would become Europe, North Asia, northern Arabia, and Africa north of the Sahara) 20 million years ago. From that time to this, many, many species of bears have come and gone, leaving today only the eight existing bear species, distributed throughout much of the world.

Those first ursine visitors to the North American continent lived mostly in forests, dining primarily on plants, but enjoying animal protein when they could get it, much like many bears do today. The ancestor to all current bear species has been identified as Ursavus, and from this line came the Tremarctinae—the ancestor of today’s South American spectacled bear—and the Ursinae, forerunner of today’s black, brown, and polar bears.

An early Ursinae representative was U. minimus (PDF), a smaller version of the modern black bear, but also fond of forest living. U. minimus was also the ancestor of the cave bears and is the predecessor of today’s bears, possibly excepting the sloth bear. Black bears and brown bears split from their common ancestor about 5 million ya, and polar bears evolved from the brown bears around 300,000 years ago.

The fossil history of black bears in North American appears to be a little fuzzy. The oldest known ursine fossil dates to 4.3 million ya, and may represent an ancestor to today's American black bears. Another record indicates black bears in the Americas by about 5 million ya, the timing of a rapid radiation of bear species in all of their global habitats. Fossils indicate that these early black bears were bigger than their modern representatives (U. americanus). Everything about them—skull, teeth, limbs—appears to have been larger, and this trend is evident in other Pleistocene animals—sloths and armadillos, for example—when compared to their modern-day counterparts. While the size is not in dispute, the timing of the oldest fossil is; other, more-recent sources state that the oldest fossil black bear remains are from Pennsylvania and are an estimated 500,000 years old.

Regardless of how long ago bears appeared, the ancestors to modern bears were not alone in the North American bear kingdom. The fossil record from caves around Texas shows that bears once boomed there; late Pleistocene finds include three species of bear representing three genera: the large black bear (U. americanus amplidens Leidy), the North American spectacled bear (Tremarctos flordanus), and the short-faced bear (Arctodus pristinus Leidy; statue from Lubbock, TX, at right). The short-faced bear was a large and aggressive carnivore—much taller than a black bear—with a slim, streamlined shape and an apparently fearsome appearance. Caves in Texas where such fossils have been found include the Friesenhahn Cave in Bexar County, Longhorn Cavern in Burnet County, and Clamp’s Cave in San Saba County. Longhorn Cavern is a treasure trove of finds—apparently, humans and other animals wandered into the cave often, because in addition to the bear finds, buffalo bones and the old skeletons of two humans have also been uncovered.

What happened to these early representatives of the bear in Texas? It is possible that the black bears and grizzlies may have outcompeted the other species—such as the spectacled and short-faced bears—once abundant in Texas. Black bears indeed may have been a lonely species in much of North America until brown bears headed southward, able to out-survive their more specialist cousins thanks to their generalist attitudes about food and an abundance of forest habitat.

Although some researchers were inclined to distinguish between two species of black bears from Florida and Texas, the fossil record from Texas indicates that this typical division is unnecessary and that there was probably a continuous species range through this area. Today (left, red), black bears are considered a single species in North America, although there have been divisions into subspecies.

Enter the people

As the Pleistocene drew to a close, humans stepped onto the scene to alter the landscape in ways that we are still trying to understand today. While the fact remains that the Age of Mammals—especially the age of giant mammals—had its last curtain call around this time, the level of blame that can be placed on newly arrived Homo sapiens remains in question. Some argue that the first people of North America hunted many of the animals to extinction; however, others argue for effects of disease or weather, rather than the activity of a few thousand people, as the strongest factors in these extinctions. When we examine later the damage a single person can do to a species, the idea of a few thousand people wiping out the large mammals does not seem completely untenable. Regardless of who is right, the fact remains that people arrived, and many of the large mammals that once roamed our continent have disappeared. But the bears are still here.

In West Texas, in the Guadalupe Mountains, the oldest known human artifact, a Folsom point, dates back 12,000 years. Nomadic tribes lived where the park is now, usually occupying it only in the summers, but by 6,000 years ago, these hunters had disappeared, to be replaced by today’s Native Americans. Mammoth skeletons found butchered at sites in Arizona and Mexico demonstrate that these early arrivals hunted large mammals successfully, but whether or not humans were truly the mechanism of extinction for these large mammals remains in question.

By 600 years ago, the Apaches arrived in western Texas, living in caves and existing on native plants such as agave and sotol and using the Guadalupes as their base for assaults on the Navajos and Pueblos. The first Europeans arrived in the late 16th century, changing the scene permanently.

At the time of the arrival of the Europeans, black bears wandered throughout North America into Mexico. According to most sources, the bears were popular targets for the newly arrived people from early in their mutual history. Accounts of the bears’ attractiveness as targets for Native Americans vary. According to some sources, they were prized by the native Americans, who hunted them in woods wherever the bears could be found. In East Texas, the Caddos hunted black bear there. Conflicting with this report is the assertion that black bears were everywhere in pre-Columbian times and were largely unmolested by indigenous people during this period. What remains in no doubt is that with the arrival of the Europeans and the westward movement of settlers, the former Pleistocene world of abundance and relative safety for the bear changed forever.

***Note: Much of this information has been updated since I originally wrote it, as new data continually come in. For example, the giant panda has been rejected and then re-introduced as an ursid in that period of time. Also, I'm no geologist or paleobiologist, but regardless I strive for accuracy and welcome corrections of any errors in the above.


Baskin, John A. The Pleistocene Fauna of South Texas. Online document: Texas A&M University Kingsville.

Bear Meat and Honey. 1990. Bear meat and honey: an oral history of the Sabinal Canyon. Utopia, TX.

Beecham, John J. and Rohlman, Jeff J. 1994. A Shadow in the Forest: Idaho’s Black Bear. Idaho Dept Fish and Game (Boise) and University of Idaho Press:Moscow, Idaho.

Bjorklund, J. 1978. Preliminary investigation of the feasibility of reestablishing a grizzly bear population in the North Cascades National Park Complex. US National Park Service Miscellaneous Research Paper NCT-8.

Bureau of Economic Geology, The University of Texas at Austin. Geologic Map of Texas. Online document:

The Centennial Museum Natural and Cultural History, El Paso. The Chihuahuan Desert through time. Online document:

The Centennial Museum Natural and Cultural History, El Paso. Volcanoes and the Chihuahuan Desert. Online document, since rearranged; related link:

Dallas Museum of Natural History. Pleistocene Exhibits. Online document, no longer available.

Fagan, Brian M. 2000. Introduction to Anthropology. Online courseware: University of California, Santa Barbara.

Futuyma, Douglas J. 1986. Evolutionary Biology, 2nd ed. Sinauer Associates Inc: Sunderland, MA. Now in 3rd edition.

Gowlett, John A. J. 1984 Ascent to Civilization: The Archaeology of Early Man. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Kohout, Martin D. Guadalupe Mountains. The Handbook of Texas Online. Online document, updated:

Kurten, Bjorn. 1963. Fossil Bears from Texas. Texas Memorial Museum. Pearce-Sellards Series, No. 1.

Montgomery, Carla W. 1989. Environmental Geology, 2nd ed. Wm. C Brown, Publishers: Dubuque, IA.

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.

Phelan, Richard. 1976. Texas Wild. Excalibur.

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.


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.