Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Bears Just Keep Comin'

Black bears are continuing to make a comeback in parts of the Lone Star State where they haven't been seen in decades. While their numbers remain relatively low, if reported sightings are any indication, the Texas bear population is increasing.

With healthy populations of black bear in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana it was only a matter of time before they started to show up on a regular basis in East Texas. Most biologists feel that many of the bears being seen in Texas are young males seeking their own territories though at least one sow with cubs has been spotted. Reported sightings in East Texas have increased gradually over the years. Only 5 bear sightings were reported in the 1980s. That number increased to 34 in the 1990s. There have been 49 sightings since 2000. According to Texas Parks & Wildlife Biologist Rickey Maxey, there have been 14 sightings in the last year alone.

There are actually two sub-species of black bear found in the state. The American black bear has actually been fairly well established in the Big Bend area for years. I believe at least some of the bears crossing into Texas from Oklahoma are American black bears. The second sub-species of black bear living in Texas is the Louisiana black bear. This is the culprit most people are beginning to see in far East Texas. To the casual observer it would be difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish one sub-species from the other. This is important because the Louisiana black bear is officially listed on the federal threatened species list and is the focus of a restoration effort in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana.

While campers, hikers, and fishermen need to be made aware of the renaissance of the black bear it is hunters that need to be especially careful. From a distance a black bear could be mistaken for a large hog fairly easily. The consequences for killing a Louisiana black bear are serious. The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department's chief game warden, Col. Peter Florez said, in a Dallas Morning News article, "Someone doesn't even want to think about shooting one of these bears. Shooting a Louisiana black bear is a state and federal crime as the sub-species is under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act. Fines could be as high as $25,000 and the perpetrator could also receive up to six months in jail." Florez also said, "Those penalties go beyond what a poacher would normally get for spotlighting deer or a similar act. All poaching is serious but poaching a bear in Texas is especially serious." Bears have been seen in Angelina, Bowie, Cass, Cherokee, Franklin, Grayson, Hardin, Jasper, Jefferson, Lamar, Marion, Montgomery, Morris, Newton, Orange, Panola, Polk, Red River, Rusk, Sabine, San Augustine, Shelby, and Wood Counties since 2000. If you hunt in these counties be aware that bears could be present.

Violent encounters with black bears are rare even where they exist in large numbers. Black bears have thrived, while their grizzly cousins have struggled, largely because they have learned that discretion is, more often than not, the better part of valor. In other words, they tend to run away or climb a tree at the first hint of trouble. If you encounter a black bear you should not run away. Running triggers any predator's instinct to chase and you are instantly viewed as prey. Instead, try to back away slowly. Avoid making eye contact as this could be construed as a challenge. If the bear advances, stand your ground and yell. Raise your arms above your head and wave them to make yourself appear larger than you are. While easier said than done, these measures are usually enough to convince a black bear to back down and retreat. If the bear does continue to advance it is bad news and you must be ready to fight aggressively for your life. You should not play dead. Do anything and everything you can to show the bear you are not easy prey.

Having said all that I don't think the outdoorsmen of Texas have too much to worry about as long as they are aware bears could be present and take appropriate precautions. Simple things like keeping campsites clean, storing food and trash away from tents, discarding processed deer and other game far from campsites, and never ever feeding bears will go a long way in making sure you don't end up with an uninvited bruin in camp. I have heard it said that black bears are basically 200-300 hundred pound raccoons. If you do everything you would normally do to discourage nighttime raccoon visitations that should be enough to keep bears out of your camp as well.

Personally, I feel the return of the black bear to East Texas is a good thing. Most Texas landowners seem to feel the same way. The destruction of suitable habitat in East Texas pretty much ensures that the black bear population will never be what it once was in the region. However, enough suitable habitat remains to support a breeding population of black bears. The bear is part of our natural heritage. They belong here. It is as simple as that.

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