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Wildlife Managers Share Lessons for Living with Black Bears in West Texas

photograph by Katy Baldock, courtesy Borderlands Research Institute. A black bear in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park.

“The Old Man in the Fur Coat.” “Old Slew Foot.” “Mama Grizzly.” “Child of the Mountain God.” Bears have always held a special place in the human imagination. They're powerful creatures, that warrant a healthy respect. But it's hard not to also feel fascination. Like us, they're omnivorous mammals. It's been suggested our Paleolithic ancestors learned which plants were edible in part by watching what bears ate.

The black bear – Ursus americanus – had been hunted out of West Texas by 1960. Now, black bears are back. At a talk at the Trans-Pecos Wildlife Conference, August 4th in Alpine, attendees can learn the remarkable story of these West Texas bears, and how to coexist safely with these returning neighbors.

Krysta Demere is a biologist with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. 

“When Vernon Bailey was conducting his biological surveys of Texas,” Demere said, “he observed that black bear were still abundant and common throughout the Chisos, the Davis Mountains and even the Guadalupe Mountains. But he did note that this was 'against unusual odds.'” 

Demere and colleague Michael Janis are studying bears here, and working to empower West Texans to live safely alongside them. 

Vernon Bailey conducted his West Texas research in the early 1900s. The “unusual odds” bears faced included the Davis Mountains Bear Hunts – from the 1880s, an annual tradition. Families traveled and camped together, hunting bears, wolves and mountain lions. Hunters often bagged 10 bears or more in the weeklong outings. 

The bears couldn't withstand those odds forever. By the late 1950s, they'd been wiped out in the Trans-Pecos, as they had across Texas.

Texas declared bears endangered in the 80s. Mexico likewise implemented protections, ending bear hunts in 85. Then, from the remote, rugged mountains of Mexico, bears began to return to West Texas.

Demere maintains the “Black Bear Database.” The earliest reports were in Big Bend National Park – a mother and cubs were seen in the Chisos in 1988. But bears don't stay put.

Between 2000 and 2004, there were 66 Trans-Pecos reports of black bears, outside the national parks. Most were in Brewster County. Sightings declined after 2005, amidst drought, but then rebounded. There were 80 reports from 2015 to 2019. Between January 2020 and May 2021 alone, there were 61. 

And while wooded mountains are prime habitat, bears are seen in starker terrain – from the Marfa Plains to just outside Fort Stockton.

How does a bear survive in this unforgiving country?

A bear has weight to throw around, Demere said, and can commandeer a carcass from a coyote, or even a mountain lion. But bear diets are capacious, including cactus and other desert plants.

“Sotol, yucca – they'll destroy a sotol or a yucca,” Demere said. “Pretty much anything you would expect a 300-lb raccoon to try and eat, that is exactly what bear will eat. So basically anything.”

Bears in Big Bend park are often lanky and thin. But elsewhere in West Texas, they can approach 400 pounds. The difference is access to food – particularly corn from deer feeders.

“If you get outside of the national park,” Demere said, “anywhere where they have that abundant source of corn, these bears can pack on the pounds. We've got some male bears that you would not want to run into out on a hike – they're pretty hefty.” 

How have West Texans responded to the renewed bear presence?

Michael Janis of Texas Parks & Wildlife is working with landowners and communities to reduce the potential for negative bear encounters.

“Most people appreciate them,” he said, “at least to a degree, until they start causing damage. We get lots of reports of people with bear captured on the trail camera, on a feeder. Like Krysta said, they're a 300-lb raccoon. They're smart. They'll tear up stuff. But it's also usually just driven by food.”

The key, Janis said, is ensuring bears don't connect people with food. Bears that grow acclimated to humans can become a threat, and often have to be euthanized.

It's ultimately trouble if a bear associates deer feeders with a feast. Janis and his colleagues have developed ingenious, affordable electric fencing that's effective here. Texas Parks & Wildlife will install that fencing for free, for landowners who are interested. 

And there are simple steps to take: don't leave pet food outdoors at night. Many West Texans – especially in the Davis Mountains – delight in feeding hummingbirds. Fortunately, bears, unlike hummers, are mostly nocturnal. Bird-lovers can enjoy hummingbirds, but should bring feeders in at night. 

For remote cabins or outbuildings, “unwelcome mats” are a good solution, Janis said. Nails are driven through a piece of plywood, and the “mat” is placed nails-up in front of a window or door.  A bear will know better than to step on it. But the mat will keep the animal from finding its way inside. 

On occasion, bears do make their way into town. In 2020, a bear spent several hours on the roof of a Sanderson home, feasting on nuts from a pecan tree. An Alpine resident called in a bear that same year. Janis and his colleagues “hazed” the bear – with rubber bullets and bean-bag rounds. It doesn't injure the animal – but does create an unpleasant association with populated areas.

Last summer, wildlife managers used a paintball gun to encourage a bear to leave Alpine's Kokernot Park.

“Any time that bear heard the paintball gun go off, he was turning and running off,” Janis said. “We felt that was successful, and didn't have any further reports of that bear. Hopefully the bear moved on, but with a healthy fear of humans, and is living out his life somewhere further away from town.” 

Livestock troughs and other waters sources are attractive to bears. Demere has been working with a Terlingua Ranch resident, who leaves a small water pan out for chickens and other stock. It's drawn an ursine visitor.

“He'll come in,” Demere said of the bear, “and he won't bother the chickens. He won't bother the livestock. But he will try to fit his entire body into that little-bitty water pan, just to cool off. If you're a large black animal out on a desert landscape at 105, you're going to do whatever you can to cool off.”

Demere is eager for notification of any bear sightings. She's particularly keen for photographs of cubs in the Davis Mountains. Bears are known to be raising young elsewhere in the region, but cubs have not yet been documented in the Davis.

Bear sightings are most likely here between April and October. Mothers den up with their young in winter, and males are conserving their energy.

Wildlife restoration often requires sustained human intervention – bighorn sheep are the case study here. But black bears have recolonized West Texas naturally. By ancient right, they belong in this wildest corner of the state. With mindfulness and care, we can accommodate their return. 

Visit bri.sulross.edu to learn more about the wildlife conference, or to register.

Drew Stuart is the producer for the Marfa Public Radio series Nature Notes.