Written by Ray Sasser / The Dallas Morning News
Mike Ford won’t forget the first black bear he saw near his home in Red River County, about 120 miles east of Dallas. It was the middle of a hot summer day in 2007. Ford, a former SMU quarterback raised in Mesquite, was driving along a dirt road when he noticed a black animal well ahead of his truck.
“I first thought it was a turkey because we’ve got lots of wild turkeys in this area and they’re pretty dark colored,” Ford said. "Then I saw that the animal was too big for a turkey and I figured it was a wild hog but that didn’t look right, either. As I got within about 200 yards, I thought I was seeing a black calf.
“Then it moved and there was no doubt what it was. I’ve seen lots of black bears while I was fishing and hunting in the Rocky Mountains, but I didn’t expect to see one in northeast Texas.”
As wild bears spread into eastern Texas from neighboring Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana, more Texas residents can expect bear encounters. Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist Ricky Maxey has logged reports of 14 bear sightings in the last year.
That’s a record number but Maxey wonders if it translates to more bears or merely a heightened awareness from the public, which understands the importance of documenting the animals. Most sightings are like Ford’s experience – from a vehicle at a distance.
Outdoor enthusiasts will just have to put up with the bears, protected from Texas hunters. Deer hunting season starts Saturday and with moderate temperatures conducive to increased hiking and camping, more Texans will be in the woods. Curious and intelligent with an insatiable appetite for almost any fruit, vegetable or meat, bears can be highly mischievous.
Nathan Garner, TP&W district wildlife biologist for the Tyler area, said he has two reports that were up close and personal, but both witnesses declined to be interviewed for this story. One encounter occurred not far from the Neches River near the proposed National Wildlife Refuge site in Cherokee County. The other was in the Sulphur River area. Garner said close encounters with East Texas bears are very rare.
Maxey credits habitat conditions for the erratic increase in bear sightings reported to the state agency. When conditions are lush and there’s plenty to eat, bears are less visible. In the 1980s, there were five East Texas bear sightings. That increased to 34 in the 1990s and 49 since the most recent turn of the century.
Since 2000, bear sightings were documented in 23 East Texas counties, and the bruins are showing up more often on remote game cameras used by hunters to monitor deer feeder activity.
“A black bear is essentially a 200-pound raccoon,” Maxey said. “Bears have a tremendous sense of smell, and most of their waking hours are spent following their noses to a food source. The food source is often corn or other bait that hunters use to attract deer.”
Twelve of the counties where bears have been seen in the last nine years border Oklahoma, Arkansas or Louisiana. Five others are one county removed from the border with those neighboring states, lending credence to the theory that bears are migrating into East Texas.
No confrontations between bears and people have been reported, but encounters are most likely during deer season, when hunters spend a lot of time in the woods. Maxey cautions hunters that bears are strictly protected by law.
Since black feral hogs are sometimes mistaken for bears, hunters must be absolutely certain of their target when hog hunting. It would be less expensive to travel to Canada and pay a hunting outfitter than to be convicted of killing a Texas bear.
Maxey said the bears in Red River County are probably young males forced out of Oklahoma by mature males.
Maxey added that the only bear killed by a car in East Texas was a young male run over on Interstate 30 near Mount Vernon in May 1999.
Texas officials have no idea how many bears have drifted into East Texas, but Chris Comer believes the number is small. Comer is an associate wildlife professor at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches. For three years, he’s overseen graduate student studies designed to quantify bear numbers and habitat quality.
“We had a graduate student in Red River County who put out more than 350 hair snares to collect hair samples from a bear that brushes up against them,” Comer said. “He only got one hair sample. I suspect the number is much less than 100 bears and possibly no more than 20.”
East Texas black bears were common in the 1800s and Comer said a bear was reportedly killed in Sabine County near the Louisiana border as recently as 1964. Bears were hunted for meat, their fat was used as cooking grease and their hides were tanned. The large animals were also viewed as threats to settlers’ livestock and crops.
The Big Thicket of southeast Texas was the region’s last stronghold for bears. Still largely undeveloped, the Big Thicket is a vast expanse of bottomland hardwood forest north of Beaumont.
In Hardin County, “Uncle Bud” Bracken was considered the bear hunting champ, with 305 hides accumulated during his career in the 19th century. Two hunters in Liberty County reported killing 182 bears from 1883-1885. All their hunting occurred in a 10-mile radius of the Trinity River drainage. Another prominent Big Thicket bear hunter was Ben Lilley, who reportedly killed 118 of the animals in 1906.
Because of shrinking East Texas habitat, black bears will never return to those numbers, but the animals are thriving in southeastern Oklahoma. Joe Hemphill has been monitoring bears for Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation for 20 years, and he conservatively estimates as many as 800 bears in the four-county area across the Texas border from Red River County.
Oklahoma had its first modern bear season in October with a strict quota of 20 bears. Archery hunters bagged 16 bruins during the initial 23 days of hunting. Then the season was expanded to muzzle-loading firearms. The biggest bear reported by an archery hunter weighed 345 pounds after it was dressed and quartered. Its live weight was more than 400 pounds.
Hemphill received more than 40 nuisance bear reports last summer. He managed to trap and relocate three of the problem bears.
“Most of the nuisance bears are young males,” he said, “but we’re trapping more nuisance females, and that seems to indicate an expanding bear population. People want to make pets out of these bears, and that’s a bad idea. Bears are powerful animals, and they can be very dangerous when they lose their fear of people.”
Part of the Red River County ranch that Mike Ford owns has been in his family for more than 100 years.
“It’s exciting to think that the bears were here when my family first owned this land and now they’re coming back,” Ford said. “The landowners that I’ve talked with are excited about it. They appreciate all the native animals, whether they’re turkeys or bears.”
BLACK BEARS AT A GLANCE
What: A large omnivorous mammal once native to most of Texas.
Size: Adult bears are five to six feet long and weigh 150 to 400 pounds.
Diet: Bears eat just about anything, including leaves, nuts, berries, roots, fruits, tubers, insects and meat. About 90 percent of their diet is vegetarian.
Habitat: Bears can survive from the deserts of the Trans-Pecos region to the deep forests of the Piney Woods. They den in hollow trees, brush piles, thickets, rock crevices or caves.
Personality: Intelligent, shy and secretive. Most bears work hard to avoid contact with humans. Mothers with cubs are protective of their offspring.
Reproduction: Females mature at 3 to 5 years. On average, they give birth to two cubs every other year.
Life expectancy: About 15 to 18 years.
Home range: About 20,000 acres for a male, 5,000 acres for a female.
Speed: A bear can run as fast as 35 mph for short bursts.
Texas status: Threatened. Bears are protected by state law. The fine for killing a bear is as high as $10,000 plus restitution fees.
Population trend: Bears are moving back into Texas from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mexico
IF YOU ENCOUNTER A BEAR
• Talk in a calm manner while backing slowly away. Do not make direct eye contact.
• Do not run. This may trigger a bear’s chase instincts.
• If a bear approaches you, stand your ground, raise your arms, backpack or jacket to appear larger. Yell at the bear.
• If attacked, fight the bear aggressively to let the animal know you are not easy prey. Do not play dead.
PREVENTING BEAR CONFRONTATIONS
• Never feed bears. Feeding teaches the bears to expect food from humans and is essentially a death sentence for the animal and potentially dangerous for any humans the habituated bear encounters.
• Keep your camp clean with food stored away from tent or trailer.
• Hunters should discard remains of processed game far away from the campsite.
• Hang automatic game feeders beyond the reach of bears.
• Deer corn in piles or open feeders attract more bears.
• Switch from corn to soybeans for wildlife bait to attract fewer bears.
BEAR INFORMATION ON THE INTERNET
TO REPORT AN EAST TEXAS BEAR SIGHTING
EAST TEXAS COUNTIES WITH DOCUMENTED BEAR SIGHTINGS SINCE 2000
Angelina, Bowie, Cass, Cherokee, Franklin, Grayson, Hardin, Jasper, Jefferson, Lamar, Marion, Montgomery, Morris, Newton, Orange, Panola, Polk, Red River, Rusk, Sabine, San Augustine, Shelby, Wood.
Original article featured in The Dallas Morning News.