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Jerry Hestand and the Bigfoot Bounty Hunters

Jerry Hestand dropped a 25-pound sack of plaster of paris over his shoulder and set a brisk pace for the Red River. The Bigfoot Bounty Hunters had no problem keeping up on an early spring day. They were a pack of kids on mission: Search for the legendary beast and along the way capture footprints of the many critters inhabiting the rolling hills of North and East Texas.

Biologist and science teacher Jerry Hestand teaches kids in ways that they will not soon forget.

The tasks of the day were to make plaster casts of as many different animals as they could find, retrieve pictures from a camera trap, and replace the camera’s batteries and memory card. The 16 fourth grade students, some parents and younger siblings hiked a mile or so into the field for the operation.

Hestand is a 14-year veteran fourth grade science teacher at Bells Elementary School. And this is not your typical science club. When Hestand uses the words field trip, he’s being literal. These young scientists sport boots and jeans, or camo, and heft buckets of plaster and sacks of sardines (bait not snacks.)

Hestand carried eco-scientist type high-tech gear in a backpack. A giant smile on his face and binoculars draped around his neck, Hestand watched as his students explored the nature as they came upon it. Periodically, one would exclaim “Wow!” “Look!” or “Ehew, yuck!” and an excited group would form around him or her to examine the find.

The more traditional science and math takes place back in the classroom where the students will measure their specimens and calculate the critters’ sizes. They also research what type of animals’ tracks they’ve captured and information about their habitats and habits.

Before loading the outdoor-skids into cars for the trip to the field, Hestand gathers them into his classroom. This is the scene for the ever-necessary lecture on rules of safety in the out of doors.

“What are the rules?” he asked.

“Stay together. Stay within a grownup’s sight. Wear long pants (some didn’t heed this warning and were sorry). Take water and a snack.” “Watch out for poison ivy.”

And he asked them what were they were looking for?

“Animal tracks!” the students yelled.

“And where will we find them?”

“In the mud,” came their reply in unison.

“Any other rules?”

“Don’t climb over any fences.”

They chose companions for the car trip to some land along the Red River, just a little north and east of their school. A private property owner allows Hestand and his young scientists to use his land. On this field trip day, someone forgot to unlock the gate, so the hike in was a lot longer than planned. That might have meant some anxious moments for parents who expected to meet their children an hour or so later.

The event was closer to three hours. Some of the parents who helped with the transport left early to return students who had siblings in track meets or other events themselves — and reassure other parents that everything was fine, just an unavoidable delay. The remaining team seemed relieved when a dad showed up at the end with a truck and empty flatbed trailer to drive them back to the main road.

But first the group fluttered across the landscape, finding tracks, carcasses, ant hills and many prickly plants. They hit the mother lode when they reached the Red River. They found a place where the animals gathered to take a drink where the river slowed but wasn’t stagnant. The wildlife had worn away the plants and provided the perfect mud field. Hestand demonstrated how to mix plaster of paris to the perfect consistency for casting tracks.

They mixed the white slop enthusiastically, so much so that their clothes were decorated with it.

Their excitement obvious by the hopping up and down and nervous chatter, the youngsters contained their enthusiasm enough to keep from stepping on tracks at the edges. By the end of the day, they successfully had cast “beaver, raccoon, possum, turkey and large water birds, probably blue heron,” Hestand reported in an e-mail Monday.

Students on the field trip were far too busy exploring the wonders of nature to submit to any interviews. But their interest was evident.

After their exercise of casting prints by the river, the group hiked east across a field to a ravine that held a tributary creek to the Red River. This was the site of their first camera trap. Hestand and some of the fathers helped students negotiate the steep bank, about 25 feet high, to reach the camera location. Some found it necessary to test their waterproof capability of their field boots in the creek. Others explored “better” routes up the embankment.

Students who had picked up skeletons and poked at carcasses, showed total disgust as they opened the tins of sardines used to bait the camera traps. The bait has drawn families of wild hogs, a large boar and a doe and her fawn in front of the camera’s lens, Hestand said.

Bigfoot Bounty Hunters came about when students found out Hestand had appeared on the television show “Monsterquest” which airs on the Travel and History channels. The series features scientists investigating mythical creatures and tales. Hestand said he has been a Bigfoot investigator since 2001, when he became a member of the Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy. His non-fiction interest grew from his love of classic horror tales, in this case “Legend of Boggy Creek” and “Creature from Black Lake.”

When students heard of his television fame, they often asked him about what he had seen on his trips into the woods and swamp lands.

“I told them a few stories during free time and some of them started to look up some of my investigations and contributions to the TBRC,” Hestand said. “Some of them wanted me to take them on an investigation, so I decided to have them meet me after school one afternoon so they could start their own group with my help.”

About 25 students showed up for the first meeting and they’ve gathered every Monday ever since. The students named their group The Bigfoot Bounty Hunters. They had a contest to design a logo, which now appears on T-shirts. The Bounty Hunters set some goals: They want to find an undiscovered animal, be on television, go on campouts and visit different places where Bigfoot sightings have been reported, learn to hike and canoe.

“We want to learn how to use a GPS, use the Internet to research, learn animal sounds and learn how to make a fire,” Hestand said.

Some of the students have accomplished almost all of their goals — and more. On numerous field trips, they have collected dozens of plaster casts of animal prints. They have set up camera traps (digital cameras with night vision lenses that capture images of animals drawn to the area with bait.) They have watched and helped replace batteries and download pictures from the cameras to laptop computers.

“Three students went with me on a trip to Fouke, Arkansas (Bigfoot sighting central and the setting of Legend of Boggy Creek.) and traveled the bayou at night,” Hestand wrote recently. "We found two huge alligator carcasses that poachers had probably shot for fun (lesson in ecology). We have started a skull collection and we go to the Internet to identify the animal. So far we have found coyote, deer, cow and horse.

“We are working on a Facebook page and we plan to have an end of year camp out.”

Parents support the effort with seven accompanying one field trip and others designing the T-shirts. One father on the field trip said he is just so happy to see his kids out in the fresh air and excited about learning.

The students are selling their T-shirts and field guides called “Critters of Texas,” pocket-size books picture animals and their footprints. The funds go to buying camera equipment and other implements for their scientific inquiries.

“We are planning to award ‘merit badges’ next year, example: Bone patch for finding and identifying bones,;(a) track badge, casting excellent track and identify animal; report badge, write an interesting report about a subject related to our research including pictures or illustrations,” Hestand wrote in an e-mail.

Hestand said the fourth graders, as they prepare for promotion to fifth grade, were worried they could no longer be Bigfoot Bounty Hunters.

“I assured them the group would be open to students interested in nature and they would continue to be junior investigators as long as they were willing to spend their time learning about the world around them,” Hestand said.

What are the limits to learning when the whole world is your classroom?

Original article in the Sherman Herald Democrat.

 

   

Bigfoot's Big Foot

National Geographic has produced an interesting video piece featuring TBRC Advisor Dr. Jeff Meldrum.

You can watch the video here.

It is unclear whether or not this video is to be part of a more comprehensive program on the subject. At any rate, it is always refreshing to see the subject receive serious treatment.
   

Where the Wild Things Are

The rubber Sasquatch head stared with glassy eyes from atop its pedestal. Beneath its gaze, Bigfoot Conference attendees milled about Tyler’s Caldwell Auditorium. Children peeked at the hairy visage from around parents’ legs. A pale man wearing black cowboy boots crossed his arms as a friend snapped a picture with his cell phone. Three teenage boys gave mocking thumbs-ups. Like the elusive or mythical creature that inspired it, the rubber Bigfoot was indifferent to the awe, curiosity and ridicule it provoked.

This was the vendor’s section of the ninth Texas Bigfoot Conference, held annually in the East Texas Piney Woods. Hosted by the nonprofit Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy, the conference is dedicated to the large ape Gigantopithecus blacki that purportedly crossed from Siberia to North America via the Beringia land bridge during the last Ice Age, 12,000 years ago. The ape’s descendants—usually described as bipedal, hairy and standing 7 to 9 feet tall—are most often sighted in rural forested areas receiving large amounts of rainfall, like the Pacific Northwest. Bigfoot also is said to roam the 65-million acre forestland along the Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana borders.

The conference aimed to separate fact from fiction. Mentions of the 1987 schlock film Harry and the Hendersons—in which John Lithgow takes a bumbling Bigfoot into his Seattle home—were met with tight grins by conservancy members.

“A lot of us like to joke around, but we never play in the field,” said member Mike Street.

Attended by about 500, the conference mixed scientific presentations with folks hoping to make a buck off the creature’s legend. In the auditorium, American Museum of Natural History primate biologist Esteban Sarmiento lectured on great apes he’d studied in Africa, Sumatra and Borneo. National Book Award-­winning naturalist-author Peter Matthiessen described a possible Yeti encounter in Tibet and said academia needs to keep a skeptical, but open, mind on undocumented species.

In the adjoining vendor area, a former standup comedian sold Sasquatch-themed hiking DVDs. Nearby, a Hollywood production designer hawked the Sasqwatch, a timepiece enclosed in a large, brown plastic foot.

“Everyone’s always real nice at the conferences,” Sasqwatch-creator Yolie Moreno said. “I’m just happy that Bob Gimlin is wearing one.”

She nodded to a tan man with a white mustache, turquoise eyes and straw cowboy hat. He sipped from a McDonald’s coffee cup, talking with people. Along with Robert Patterson, Gimlin is famous for the only known filming of a Sasquatch. Shot on 16mm film in 1967, the footage shakily depicts a hairy creature walking upright like a man near a creek in Northern California. A regular feature on the History Channel’s Monster Quest, 78-year-old Gimlin is the Mick Jagger of Bigfoot conferences.

“I took so much ridicule over that for 40 years,” Gimlin said. “For a while I was really sorry that I’d ever been down there to see it. But since I’ve started meeting people at conferences like this one, I’ve enjoyed doing them.”

Another Bigfoot celebrity, Smokey Crabtree, scouted locations and starred as himself in the 1970s Bigfoot feature film The Legend of Boggy Creek, shot in Fouke, Arkansas. The movie’s YouTube trailer is replete with grainy Texarkana forestland footage and a Charlie’s Angels-style soundtrack. Crabtree self-published an account of the production, as well as the story of his real-life encounter with Bigfoot, Smokey and the Fouke Monster … A True Story.

“My son shot him three times with a shotgun,” Crabtree said, adjusting his cowboy hat and bolo. “It didn’t do him no harm at all, though. My son was 60 feet away and using squirrel shot.”

Crabtree pointed to a framed picture of a four-toed, 8-foot-long possible Bigfoot skeleton he discovered decomposing on a bed of Arkansas pine needles. “That’s not human,” he said.

He and his wife sold copies of his books and spoken-word CD, The Legend of Smokey Crabtree, next to a poster board covered with faded newspaper clippings. They depicted Crabtree’s other grapples with nature: a 200-pound alligator gar from the Red River in 1958, a 575-pound wild boar and a ­37-pound bobcat trapped with grandson Skeeter.

“One of the biggest mistakes was making that movie,” he said. “I used to shoot ducks in my underwear from the back porch. When the movie caught on, 5 million people came beating down my door. I had to give my property away.”

A young hipster couple next to Crabtree promoted their Web site, BelieveItTour.com. Their logo—“As a child you believe. What happens then?”—depicted a cartoon Bigfoot attempting to hitch a ride alongside a white-sheet ghost and a green alien.

Conservancy members do not appreciate having Bigfoot ridiculed.

“There is a stigma attached to saying you’ve seen a Bigfoot or are interested in the subject,” said conservancy President Craig Woolheater. He squinted through rectangular glasses. “People will laugh at you. It’s lumped in with the paranormal—ghosts, witchcraft, UFOs, voodoo. That’s where the Bigfoot books are in the library.”

It takes a certain type of person to earnestly study a creature that’s largely been dismissed by the mainstream scientific community. And, judging by the conference, men seemed more likely than women to possess that perfect mix of curiosity, stuborness and a predilection for elusive hairy primates. “My sweet wife won’t ever come to these things,” said Gimlin, who had sighted the creature along rural back roads. A few spouses worked the ticket booth with the resigned tolerance that might be shown for ­nascar or wrestling.

I understood their feelings. My wife Catherine had agreed to accompany me to the conference. In an Austin boutique, she’d bought a T-shirt depicting a Bigfoot holding an American flag among pine trees. At the last moment, fearing conference attendees might take her shirt as mockery, she decided to wear her jacket and scarf as cover.

“You don’t seem like a believer,” one man told her. “Did somebody drag you here today?”

Like Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts wary of a meathead jock, Bigfoot conference attendees and conservancy members sometimes hesitated to be interviewed. When I told them I was originally from Henderson, just down the road from Tyler, they became more at ease.

“Did you grow up hearing stories?” was a typical question.

I truthfully had to answer no. Most Bigfoot sightings occur around Texarkana and in the Big Thicket. Henderson falls between these two regions. I could think of only one person who, out of boredom, had spent nights searching for Sasquatch without ever discovering even a footprint.

Many conservancy members claim to have sighted the creature. Woolheater said he and his girlfriend saw Bigfoot walking beside a remote highway while driving from New Orleans to Dallas in 1994. Daryl Colyer sighted Bigfoot near the Trinity River in 2004, claiming the creature smelled “like a sweaty horse.” The conservancy maintains the creature has the population size of the jaguarundi (a medium-sized wild cat whose Texas population is estimated at less than 50) and the intelligence of an orangutan, and lives in the forest’s most remote sections.

“In my lifetime, I’d like to see credible evidence of this animal brought to light and public acceptance,” Woolheater said.

Representing a scientific organization that is largely shunned by academia, Colyer spoke indignantly about this treatment during his slideshow, “Bigfoot 101.” He mentioned University of Florida anthropologist David Daegling’s 2004 book, Bigfoot Exposed: An Anthropologist Examines America’s Enduring Legend. Fellow believers in the audience grumbled. Among other debunkings, the book states there is no scientific proof supporting the creature’s existence and that its recent resurgence is mostly because believers share stories over the Internet.

“My question to Daegling is, ‘Who’s been looking?’ ” Colyer told the crowd. “Do we have any teams out there right now heavily funded by a university? TBRC members do the best we can, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to go back home and put food on the table. We need funding. Money talks.”

Until a Bigfoot is killed or captured, believers hope for other evidence. Bill Dranginis sold his “EyeGotcha” surveillance video equipment at a vendor’s table. Cameras covered in metal grates could be fixed to trees. “Hair snares”—triangular-shaped metal tubes whose inner walls were lined with stiff steel brushes—could be baited and hung from branches to snag a section of Bigfoot hide for DNA study. During one presentation, conservancy wildlife biologist Alton Higgins said the group had spent over $50,000 for surveillance equipment in the Piney Woods. So far they had procured many images of black bears playing with hair snares.

“Do you think Bigfoot can smell the batteries in the camera?” a man asked Dranginis.

“That’s a good question,” he replied.

Believers blame the lack of evidence on the creature’s remote habitat, seemingly nocturnal nature, and the fact that most animals crawl into a crevasse or tucked-away spot to die. “We have 40 cameras out now,” Woolheater said, referring to a Texas-Oklahoma-Arkansas-Louisiana forestland roughly the size of Oregon. “Do the math. It’s very unlikely we’ll get a photo.”

As Dranginis explained the “Eyegotcha” method, American Museum of Natural History primate biologist Sarmiento began his afternoon presentation on the world’s great apes. With shoulder-length black hair, Sarmiento resembled Tarzan’s urban cousin. His slides, displaying many great-ape genitalia, resembled a college lecture. He said species were dying out as human populations encroached on their habitats. Neither negating nor confirming Bigfoot’s existence, Sarmiento said the Patterson-Gimlin footage was not of a great ape.

“The depicted creature’s large mammary glands are hairy, whereas those of humans or chimpanzees,” he said, clicking onto a new slide, “are clearly not.”

Squirming in their seats, a middle-aged couple glanced at each other over their young boy’s head.

Matthiessen, the keynote speaker, is a tall thin man with sunken eyes and gray hair. As late-afternoon attendees sat outside discussing college football or sightings, he leaned against a railing, scribbling on a legal pad. His 1978 National Book Award-winning travelogue, The Snow Leopard, recounts how Matthiessen saw what he believed to be a Yeti in the mountains of Tibet. He had been brought to the Texas Bigfoot Conference by his friend, John Mionczynski, a wildlife biologist who in 1972 encountered Bigfoot in the Big Horn Mountains, which stretch from Wyoming into Montana. Contemplating whether to write a book on the subject, Matthiessen paused to muse on Bigfoot and his worldwide brethren.

“People have a need for story and myth,” Matthiessen said, watching a crowd form around Gimlin. “Most scientists are very skeptical. And they should be. But they shouldn’t have a completely closed mind about it. Remember the coelacanth, a so-called fossil fish? It was believed to be 200,000 years extinct and then turned up 20 years ago off the Madagascar coast. I saw some myself in a tank while visiting the Comoros Islands. So, you know, stranger things have happened than Bigfoot.”

Matthiessen squinted into the humid afternoon sun. Two men with gelled hair, camouflage T-shirts, and fanny packs walked past.

“I’m all for mystery,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a very dull world when there’s no more mystery at all.”

Feeling trampled by Bigfoot, my wife decreed we put an end to the proceedings. After a stop at Starbucks, we sped away from Tyler. Office buildings and chain stores gave way to thick forest and red-dirt back roads. As Catherine unbuttoned her jacket, the T-shirt Bigfoot emerged from its hiding spot to stare at the quarter moon ascending the dashboard.

See the original article at the Texas Observer.

   

Bears Migrating into East Texas at Growing Rate

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

www.bebearaware.org

www.bbcc.org

www.fws.gov/endangered/

www.tpwd.state.tx.us

TO REPORT AN EAST TEXAS BEAR SIGHTING

Call 903-679-9821 or 409-384-6894 or e-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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.

   

Playing Hide and Seek with a Giant

Sasquatch illustration by Pete Travers.Fifty years ago construction worker Jerry Crew found his tracks; today biologists pursue him by high-tech means. We are talking about Bigfoot, America’s legendary creature.

People who have supposedly seen Bigfoot in various locales of the USA describe the creature as two to three meters tall, hairy and with ape-like facial features. Also notable are the gait and gigantic footprints left behind. This last feature prompted journalist Andrew Genzoli to coin the term Bigfoot. Nowadays, many prefer the term Sasquatch, a name of North American native derivation, originally meaning “Lord of the Forest.” Is it possible that such a creature can lead its life these days, hidden away from science?

Enormous and Black

Alton Higgins belongs to a growing group of persons who have encountered Bigfoot. And he isn’t just anybody: Alton Higgins is a biologist and teaches at Mid-America Christian University in Oklahoma City. “Theoretically, I can’t claim to have seen a bigfoot, in that the existence of this creature has not been proven.” Nevertheless, Higgins claims to have seen an animal in 2002 in Oklahoma that is not contained in any guide to mammals. “I saw a gigantic, black animal, which ran away from me with great speed on two legs,” says the 57 year-old. He observed the animal from a distance of about 40 m under perfect viewing conditions.

Higgins has pursued Bigfoot for 10 years. In 1998 he found a 40 cm long footprint in Washington State. “I couldn’t assign it to any known animal.” Today he is a member of the Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy, a group of scientists and outdoor enthusiasts who operate under the banner of the documentation and protection of Bigfoot. “We have installed roughly 30 camera traps in the wilderness of Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma.” To date, no Bigfoot has crossed the infrared beam to trigger one of the traps.

Search by a Swiss Researcher

For 50 years people like Alton Higgins have searched for proof of the existence of Bigfoot. At the end of the fifties construction worker Jerry Crew found gigantic footprints in the vicinity of the California town of Willow Creek and cast them in plaster of Paris. The photo of him posing with the cast was publicized around the world. It was the starting bell for the search for Bigfoot. Always at the forefront of these efforts was the Swiss René Dahinden. He immigrated from Luzern to Canada in 1953 and spent his life searching for the creature.

From colonial days through to the present day, people supposedly encountered the big-footed creatures time and again; even the native Indians reported the sasquatch. But what, in fact, is a sasquatch? For Jeff Meldrum, an anthropologist at Idaho State University, the answer is Gigantopithecus, a gigantic ape that lived in prehistoric Asia. “Giganto” is considered to have immigrated to North America by way of the Bering land bridge. That sounds reasonable to Alton Higgins: “Gigantopithecus is a good candidate, but what that theory demonstrates above all is that the sasquatch is not a biological absurdity. Such an animal thrived at one time, and there are no biological or ecological reasons why it couldn’t exist today.”

Believers and Fakers

Higgins and Meldrum are among the few scientific advocates of Bigfoot. In 2002 they received prominent support from the well-known chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall. She revealed in a radio interview that she believes in the existence of Bigfoot, stating, “I am sure that it exists.” Discussions with American Indians had convinced her.

However, many of Goodall’s colleagues think otherwise. David Daegling, an anthropologist at the University of Florida, seriously doubts the existence of Bigfoot. “How can such a large animal remain undiscovered, when it has been looked for for decades? To date, nobody has found bones or other remains of Bigfoot. But that should have happened.” For Daegling, Bigfoot is not a biological phenomenon, but a sociological one: “It is basically an interaction of, on the one hand, Bigfoot believers, for whom it has profound significance – for example as a symbol of raw nature – such that they can’t dismiss it as a myth, and, on the other hand, of fakers, who lay down Bigfoot prints and fake other evidence.” Thereby arise mistaken and imaginary details.

Why no Remains?

It is clear to Alton Higgins that his sighting was not imaginary. “It was no bear and it wasn’t a man,” said Higgins. “Many people in that area have similar reports.” Higgins has explanations why no remains have been found in 50 years. “The sasquatch is rare, it has a long life span, and it decays rapidly after death.” The latter argument holds for other animals as well. “In the USA there are millions of white-tailed deer, but you hardly ever find their bones.”

It is questionable whether Bigfoot will one day leave the realm of legend for that of biological reality. Conversely, it is a fact that new species are constantly being discovered. Recently, the World Wildlife Fund published a report about discoveries in the Mekong Delta area. Over 1,000 new species of plants and animals were found there, including a new species of deer. Even among primates, major discoveries are rather recent: The first scientific description of the Mountain Gorilla was provided only in 1903. Prior to its discovery it was considered to be a myth, a product of the imagination of adventurers.

This article was originally published on 3 May 2009 in the Swiss newspaper Zentralschweiz am Sonntag (Central Switzerland on Sunday).

REFERENCES

Daegling, David. (2004). Bigfoot Exposed: An Anthropologist Examines America's Enduring Legend. 276 pp. AltaMira Press. Walnut Creek, California.
Meldrum, Jeff. (2006). Sasquatch: Legends Meets Science. 304 pp. Forge Books. New York, NY.
The Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy, www.texasbigfoot.org.

   

The Great Ape Behavioral Parallel 4

It seems that new and surprising discoveries regarding the behavior, intelligence, and ingenuity of the great apes are being made on an astoundingly regular basis. This past week scientists revealed a startling discovery regarding chimpanzees. In a study published in the International Journal of Primatology, scientists in the Republic of Congo reported that wild chimpanzees arm themselves with large clubs crafted from branches to pound the nests of bees in order to gain access to the honey inside. In addition, these same chimps also put together “toolkits” made up of different sized wooden implements to help in their quest for the sweet treat.

A chimpanzee wields a limb in an attempt to extract honey from a tree. Source: BBC News.Primatologists have long been aware that chimps love honey and will go to great lengths to get it. Previous studies have noted how these apes fashion and shape sticks to dip into or pry open nests; however, until now, no one knew just how far chimpanzees would go to gain access to honey. Dr. Crickette Sanz, of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said, “It seems these chimps in central Africa have developed more sophisticated techniques for getting at the honey than populations in eastern and western Africa – maybe it is some kind of regional feature.” He added, “These nests are tough to get into – they can be at the top of the forest canopy, at the end of a branch – and the chimps will go up there and hang at all sorts of precarious angles to get to the honey, using these clubs in any way that they can to access it.” Video footage, taken during four years of observation by researchers, shows chimpanzees pounding concrete-hard nests over 1000 times. Researchers observed some chimps take well over 1000 swings in the morning, stop and rest several hours, and then return in the afternoon to take another 1000 or so swings before finally breaking through and gaining access to the honey.

The chimpanzees of the Congo are also using tools of a more subtle type in their beehive raids. David Morgan, one of the co-authors of the study, from the Wildlife Conservation Society and Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, said, “One of the most exciting aspects is that they are using multiple tools to access the honey that is in these hives.” Morgan and the other researchers noted the use of “toolkits” made up of the large pounding clubs, smaller and thinner “dipping wands,” and smaller sticks used for gaining enough leverage to open a hive. Researchers observed the chimps fashioning these tools and then setting them aside for later use. “They cache them in the canopy,” said Dr. Morgan. This behavior seems to point to forethought and an understanding, at least of some level, of the future. A comparable behavior was reported a few weeks ago in a study of a captive chimp, housed in the Furuvik Zoo. The chimp, named Santino, was observed collecting and fashioning throwing-sized rocks in the morning, creating a hidden cache of these rocks, and then accessing and throwing them at zoo patrons in the afternoon. It seems evident that great apes evaluate the future in ways that are much more complex than previously thought.

Considering this new information, the “wood knocking” behavior sometimes proposed for the wood ape seems all the more plausible. Even though there have been no visual reports of a wood ape hitting a large limb against a tree, this should not be surprising, given that chimpanzees, a species long known to exist, have only recently been seen whacking limbs against trees for purposes of extracting honey. It is suspected by some that wood knock sounds heard in remote wooded areas may be attributable to the wood ape; such sounds have been reported, and recorded, many times. These sounds are said to be distinctly different than the sounds of even the largest woodpeckers. Further, the sounds are often identified at night. Members of the TBRC have heard and recorded such knocks in the woods of East Texas, generally in the middle of the night in extremely remote areas where the involvement of other humans was considered highly unlikely.

The most common theory put forth by researchers who believe the wood-knocking sounds are attributable to the wood ape centers on communication as the purpose. Others have hypothesized that it is actually an attempt to intimidate and drive off intruders. Perhaps a new theory can now be offered: it is possible, after observing chimpanzees of the Congo pounding bee hives in search of honey, that the wood knocking reportedly heard on occasion in the deep woods of North America is actually an aspect of some sort of food searching activity. Could wood apes be pounding on trees in an effort to get to some sort of food source like termites or other insects? Porcupines, bears, and other animals strip bark from trees in searches for food. These animals have the benefit of claws to remove bark. Assuming the wood ape is at least as intelligent as the known great apes, and has no claws, it is not difficult to imagine individuals of the species using crude clubs to hit trees so as to gain access to whatever resources might be found inside. 

With every revelation of newly observed great ape behavior and their incredible cognitive abilities, the plausibility of a rare and elusive species such as the wood ape inhabiting remote pockets of North American forests becomes increasingly augmented.

Source:

BBC News/Science & Environment.

   

The Great Ape Behavioral Parallel - 3

A widely publicized study, authored by Mathias Osvath, a Ph.D. candidate at Lund University, seems to indicate some startling information about the intellectual capacities of the chimpanzee. In particular, Osvath studied the territorial displays of a captive chimpanzee named Santino. The observed behaviors of this particular chimpanzee seem to prove that apes are very much aware of the future and can plan ahead for it just as humans do.

According to a report on Osvath’s work in the journal Current Biology, Santino, a chimpanzee residing at Sweden’s Furuvik Zoo, collected a stash of rocks during periods of calm, stashed them away, and then hurled them at unsuspecting zoo visitors who gawked and laughed at his daily territorial displays. Because the enclosure is relatively rock free, and many of the stones Santino launched at visitors were covered in algae, it was inferred that he initially collected many of his stones from the waters of the moat surrounding his enclosure. However, in looking to supplement his arsenal, Santino went so far as to probe the artificial concrete “boulders” in his enclosure seeking weak spots. Once located, the chimp knocked off chunks of the material to add to his weapons cache. If the collected concrete was too large to easily toss, Santino worked at breaking it into more manageably sized pieces. Even more impressive is that Santino did all of his collecting in the morning hours before the zoo opened and waited until midday before raining down his collection upon zoo patrons.

“These observations,” Osvath said, “convincingly show that our fellow apes do consider the future in a very complex way.” Osvath also stated, “It implies that they have a highly developed consciousness, including lifelike mental simulations of potential events.” Osvath based his findings not only on his own observations, but those of three zoo caretakers who followed the chimp’s behavior for 10 years at the Furuvik zoo. He added, “It is very special that he first realizes that he can make these (throwing sized projectiles) and then plans on how to use them. This is more complex than what has been showed before. The fact that the ape stayed calm while preparing his weapons but used them when he was extremely agitated proves that the planning behavior was not based on an immediate emotional drive.”

Joseph Call, author of a 2006 study of orangutan and bonobo behaviors conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, did say that it is unclear as to how typical this level of intelligence might be in chimpanzees as a species. “It could be that he is a genius, only more research will tell.” He did add, “On the other hand, our research showed the same (awareness of the future and ability to plan ahead) in orangutans and bonobos. So, he is not alone.” Studies by Susan Savage-Rumbaugh, on the language abilities of the bonobo, also seem to indicate a greater deal of awareness and planning among the great apes than humanity had assumed.

The connection to wood ape research is fairly obvious. There have been many reports of wood apes throwing sticks or rocks at witnesses, including some of the earliest recorded reports. For instance the famous Mt. Saint Helen’s area Ape Canyon incident of 1924, reported by prospector Fred Beck, included reports of rocks hurled at the cabin where Beck and his companions bunked. While some retellings of the story have the attackers dislodging boulders, which undoubtedly adds to the drama, Beck himself disputed these claims. As Beck noted in his short book on the incident, “Most accounts tell of giant boulders being hurled against the cabin, and say some even fell through the roof, but this was not quite the case. There were very few large rocks around in that area. It is true that many smaller ones were hurled at the cabin, but they did not break through the roof, but hit with a bang, and rolled off.” Going back further still, the diary of Elkanah Walker (an early missionary to the Spokane people), relates stories he heard from natives about a “race of giants” inhabiting “a certain mountain off to the west.” It is believed by many that the mountain Walker was referencing was Mt. Saint Helens. However the most intriguing part of Walker’s entry on the “giants” isn’t which mountain they lived on, but their behavior toward their human neighbors. “It is not uncommon for them to come in the night,” he wrote, “and give three whistles and then the stones will begin to hit their houses.”

This type of reported behavior has often been scoffed at by many in the media and even the scientific community as being too fantastic to be believable. However, now that this behavior has been observed in several different species of great apes, accounts of witnesses having rocks rained down upon them, their cabins, tents, or vehicles seem much more plausible.

Of even more interest though, is the notion that great apes seem to have an understanding of how possible future events may play out and, therefore, make contingency plans for them. While to Walker such reports were so fantastic that he labeled them “superstitions,” and Beck was so shaken by the capacities of the apes that attacked him that he came to believe they were supernatural or spiritual beings, it could very well be that the behaviors these men heard of and experienced were so disconcerting because, to their minds, they were outside the realm of possibility for known animals of any kind, including primates. Could it be that, rather than encountering “mountain devils” as Beck would contend, hikers, campers, and fishermen who have had rocks rain down on them have simply stumbled too close to the actual nest or breeding area of a wood ape? Perhaps these types of reports should be examined more closely than a typical sighting report (if, indeed, there is such a thing as a typical sighting report). Based on the behaviors observed in Santino the chimpanzee, it may not be so far-fetched to think it possible that a wood ape might stash rocks or limbs in several locations around its true home to be used in the event an intruder wanders just a bit too close.

By far the most commonly reported response of the wood ape to human interlopers is simply to walk away. The stick or rock throwing is a very different, and apparently more aggressive, behavior. What could elicit such a seemingly atypical response? If the inferences we draw from Santino’s territorial displays and associated rock throwing apply to the wood ape, it could be that the intruder was too close to the animal’s home, young, or main food source. If true, such areas might yield positive results if monitored closely over long periods of time.

And what if a rock strikes a researcher? Well, if it results in definitive documentation, a bump on the head might just be a small price to pay for the discovery of the century.

Sources:

BBC News/Science & Environment.

Beck, Fred; told to Ronald Beck. (1967). I Fought the Apemen of Ape Canyon, Mount St. Helens, WA.

Drury, Clifford. (1976). Nine Years with the Spokane Indians: the Diary, 1838-1848, of Elkanah Walker. The Arthur H. Clarke Company, Glendale, CA

ScienceDirect.com: Current Biology. Volume 19, Issue 5, pages 190-191, 10 March 2009. Spontaneous planning for future stone throwing by a male chimpanzee.

Susan Savage-Rumbaugh. Apes that write, start fires and play Pac-man.

   

BIPcast 4: Sasquatch on the Oklahoma Prairie

The itinerant Brian Brown talks with TBRC biologist Alton Higgins on location in Oklahoma and Texas regarding a multi-year investigation of sasquatch activity near a rural Native American community.

This podcast, entitled BIPcast 4: Sasquatch on the Oklahoma Prairie, is the fourth in a series of podcasts, and features TBRC biologist Alton Higgins as well as private investigator Roger Roberts of Tulsa. The interviews were conducted in mid-2007.

BIPcasts are made possible by The Bigfoot Information Project.

Listen to BIPcast 4: Sasquatch on the Oklahoma Prairie.

Also, be sure to catch BIPcast 5: Bigfoot in the Big Thicket.

   

Yeti Evidence Convincing?

In a brief Daily Mail (U.K.) article, revered wildlife expert Sir David Attenborough is quoted stating, “There is very convincing evidence that yetis exist.” He goes on to say, “I am baffled by the Abominable Snowman – very convincing footprints have been found at 19,000 feet. No one does that for a joke. I think it’s unanswered.” Attenborough made the comments during the BBC program Friday Night with Jonathan Ross on 27 February 2009.

Attenborough is not the first prominent wildlife expert to go on record saying there is convincing evidence that undiscovered large primates may exist in remote areas of the planet. Renowned primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall said in a 2002 interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation: Science Friday with Ira Flatow, “You will be amazed when I tell you that I’m sure that they (bigfoot/yetis) exist.”

It is encouraging to see established wildlife experts like Sir David Attenborough and Dr. Jane Goodall going on record and acknowledging that compelling evidence that such species exist is out there and warrants a closer look. Hopefully the positions of these two well known, respected, and established scientists will serve to interest others in the scientific establishment to look into this mystery. The TBRC takes the position that these animals could be documented if properly trained and funded teams were given enough time. Unfortunately, few established scientists are willing to go out on the “sasquatch limb.” Perhaps it is no coincidence that Attenborough and Goodall waited until this point in their careers to make their proclamations. Making public their thoughts on the sasquatch and/or yeti at earlier points in their careers, assuming they have held these opinions for some time, could have endangered the funding for their life’s work and irrevocably damaged their reputations within the scientific community.

Perhaps, with the help of respected researchers like Attenborough and Goodall, the tide can be turned and this subject will no longer represent career suicide for interested scientists. More than any photo or DNA sequence, a greater willingness to risk curiosity may be the breakthrough that must occur before the “discovery of the century” can take place. It may also prove to be just as difficult to achieve.

Source: The Daily Mail Online; NPR's Talk of the Nation with Ira Flatow: Sasquatch Legends Meets Science.

   

Black Bears in Illinois?

Recently, an article appeared in the Kewanee, Illinois Star-Courier documenting the capture of a black bear (Ursus americanus) near Neponset. It is believed to be the first black bear sighted in the state of Illinois in over 40 years and the first black bear ever caught in the state’s history.

The manner in which the story has unfolded is a familiar one. The wildlife officials in Illinois have automatically assumed that the bear is an escaped pet. Although it is possible that such an assumption is correct, it seems to be an automatic assumption of all wildlife officials in all states when it comes to animals turning up in places outside of their known habitat zones.

In Texas, such assumptions are pervasive among wildlife officials regarding cougar (Puma concolor) and black bear sightings. If no picture, tracks, or other hard evidence is present the officials will invariably claim that the witness was mistaken. If tracks, a photo, or other evidence is present proving that the witness actually did see the cougar or bear, officials will normally state that the animal is merely an “escaped pet.”

Such stock assumptions, in many cases, seem in defiance to reason; however, the basis behind such seemingly unreasonable assumptions and statements may simply boil down to a management/money issue. Official acknowledgement of a species in an area where it was previously not known to inhabit, may indeed ultimately lead to expended resources, time and money that must be devoted to management of that species. Further, certain industries in a region may fear that they could be adversely impacted by the discovery of threatened or endangered species.

If the sasquatch were documented it would more than likely have to be considered endangered or, at the very least, threatened. Those who would be likely tasked with implementing such a management plan may be less than enthusiastic at that prospect. Developers and the timber industry would probably not welcome the news. These industries have historically had a powerful voice.

It is possible that the Illinois wildlife officials are right; the black bear captured there may very well be an escaped pet or captive. However, just once, it would be sweet and welcome music for a wildlife official to say, “We have no idea where this guy came from, but we intend to find out.”

Source: Star-Courier.

   

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