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Columns | "In The Pines With Dana Goolsby"

Black Bears
Return to East Texas

Cougars and Panthers and Bears!
Oh My!

By Dana Goolsby
Dana Goolsby

In East Texas, just before dusk as the setting sun’s rays pierce through pockets of the pines, visibility is limited. If you are sitting in a deer stand, you will notice that with every passing moment your surroundings begin to fade and merge into darkness. The east Texas tales of black panthers screaming into the night, and cougars that drag mangled carcasses into trees enter the mind about this time, as you prepare to exit your stand. At 100 yards a dark shape fumbling beneath a game feeder can be hard to identify, but would most likely be presumed to be a feral hog. But take another look, and make a positive identification, because that dark hog-like shape could be a black bear!

Davy Crockett National Forest Bear Sign
A sign newly posted in the Houston County area, near the Davy Crockett National Forest.
Photo courtesy Dana Goolsby, 2010

Will east Texans greet the black bear with open arms or loaded arms, as the species attempts to naturally re-inhabit the land that they once roamed? Will history repeat itself, and East Texas residents exterminate the black bear once again?

Hunters should always make positive visual identification before shooting at anything as a general standard of hunting safety. Bears are often mistaken for feral hogs at first, however the fine for shooting a black bear cannot be mistaken! It would be less expensive to travel to Canada and pay a hunting outfitter than to be convicted of killing a Texas bear. The civil penalty for killing a black bear is a fine of $10,000 and could likely include jail time, but almost always includes probation and loss of hunting privileges. Bear hunting of any kind has been prohibited statewide in Texas since 1983.

The black bear once occurred throughout the state of Texas. Black bears were almost gone in Texas by the end of World War II because of unregulated hunting and habitat loss. For nearly a century, the bears were hunted and killed for their meat, fat for cooking and hides for tanning, as well as for the sport of competitive hunting. Decades ago, east Texas bear hunting even attracted the nation's top bear enthusiast, Teddy Roosevelt.

East Texas residents snuffed out the black bears in a short matter of time, but considered themselves champion hunters. One resident accumulated 305 black bear hides during his career. Another resident reported killing 182 black bears in only two years time. In 1906 the last mass killing of black bears was reported. During that year a hunter reported killing 118 black bears.

The black bear’s last stronghold was in the swamps and thickets of the Big Thicket Region.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) has documented numerous reliable bear sightings in recent years throughout East Texas. Though there are no reported sightings in Houston County yet, there are reports of black bear sightings as close as Anderson County. TPWD has no way of knowing how many sightings go unreported each year. Photos of bears taken by motion-sensitive cameras have verified sightings.

Studies are also being conducted by researchers at Stephen F. Austin State University to better determine the distribution and population of black bears in eastern Texas.

East Texas possesses the elements for a good bear habitat, including food, cover and areas with few humans. There are about 12 million acres of undeveloped private and public land throughout East Texas.

Davy Crockett National Forest is located east of Crockett. The forest covers a total of 161,842 acres (252.9 sq miles) in two counties: Houston and Trinity Counties. The forest is centrally located within the Neches and Trinity River basins. Davy Crockett National Forest is ideal terrain for a black bear to hide as well as thrive. It is simply a matter of time before the first black bear is seen meandering about through the bottom lands, beneath the pines in Houston County.

Black bears have been making a slow and natural return to Texas since 1984. Over time, black bears have the potential to replace or refill a gap in the ecosystem that they filled prior to their extinction in the area.

There have always been periodic but rare sightings of black bears in East Texas. There was a resurgence of sightings within the East Texas region that followed a release of 161 black bears from Minnesota by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, between 1964-1967, in an effort to boost populations of the species in Louisiana.

TPWD officials think most of the bears that have made their way to Texas are lone young males. Young male Black bears wander into Texas, then later females. Forced to leave a territory by older male bears, young males will roam hundreds of miles looking for suitable habitat and mates. The swamps, forests and thickets of East Texas have much to offer.

One popular misconception is that bears are being relocated and stocked in East Texas.

Nathan Garner, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's regional wildlife director for East Texas, stressed that is not the case.

"We are not going to bring bears in at all unless we had a fairly large (public) support," he said, adding that studies have shown general public support for the return of the black bear to East Texas.

The question is; are the wandering black bears just sowing wild oats and sightseeing? Or will they settle down and stay awhile?

“It all depends on the lady bears,” Garner said.

When a young male bear begins actively seeking a mate, it is a powerful driving force of nature. If he does not find a mate, he will travel as far as he must to find her. While a young male bear is likely to roam 100 miles or more from his mother's range, female bears are not so adventurous.

At some point in the future, a decision to bring in female bears may be considered. However, extensive studies would have to be made prior to such an event. Stocking may be unnecessary as bears continue to move slowly and naturally into the forests of East Texas from adjoining states where there are growing, expanding or stable black bear populations.

A committee of stakeholders comprised of representatives from state, federal, and private entities collaborated to develop the East Texas Black Bear Conservation and Management Plan and form a coalition group called the East Texas Black Bear Task Force (TBBTF). The East Texas Black Bear Conservation and Management Plan adopted by TPWD in 2005 uses a partnership approach to facilitate the recovery of black bears in eastern Texas through cooperative efforts.

“This plan was produced in the spirit of conservation for the Specific strategies addressed in this plan strive to promote public awareness through outreach while providing public and private biologists and willing landowners with the technical knowledge to increase and/or enhance suitable black bear habitat throughout East Texas. The purpose of re-establishing the bear is a viable part of the native wildlife community of East Texas.", according to the mission statement of the East Texas Black Bear Conservation and Management Plan.

Black bears are usually reclusive and solitary animals that shy away from human contact, but with more bears coming into East Texas, it is possible that hunters or campers could encounter one. Bears are primarily vegetarians, feeding on blackberries, grapes, acorns, leaves and other forest vegetation. People are more comfortable with the return of the black bear, after realizing that 90% of its diet is vegetarian. However, black bears are opportunistic feeders and their diets change with seasons. However, no confrontations between bears and people have been reported.

Bears are still rare in Texas and very few Texans have ever seen one here, and is unlikely that you or someone you know will ever encounter one. Black bears go to great lengths to avoid humans.

Even so, never approach a bear. If you do happen to encounter a black bear at close range in the wilderness of East Texas, do not panic. Do not run either, says the TPWD Black Bears in Texas brochure. Back away slowly, with arms overhead to increase the size of your appearance, talk firmly and in a low-pitched voice. If a bear stands on its hind legs, it is not preparing to attack. It is trying to see, hear and smell you. NEVER approach a bear cub.

Public opinion surveys of residents in several Texas counties show general support for the return of black bears, while also indicating a need for more easily available information about bears.

If you happen to encounter the elusive Black bear, call TPWD. One of the bear plan’s goals is to resolve human-bear conflicts. If you see a bear, or have a bear problem, call your TPWD game warden or wildlife biologist or the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at (800) 792-1112.

Anyone can receive the recently created brochure “Bear Safety in Mind” from TPWD by calling the following regional offices nearest you: East Texas/Tyler- (903) 566-1626.

© Dana Goolsby
"In The Pines With Dana Goolsby" Column, October 14, 2010
First Published in The Grapeland Messenger

More on Bears in Texas

  • The Big Thicket Bear Hunters Club of Kountze by W. T. Block Jr.
    "The old bear hunters of Hardin County had two things in common - they hunted bears until their youth gave way to old age, and they became windy raconteurs, talking each other to death about the big bear that got away... And now the Big Thicket bear hunters are as extinct as the Big Thicket bears they once hunted."

  • Grin and Bear It by Milton Babb
    "There's nothing worse than a drunken bear in a department store..."

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