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Ursine explorers: tracking black bears’ recolonization of West Texas

A black bear gazes out from behind a sotol plant in Big Bend National Park.
Rick Negele
National Park Service
A black bear gazes out from behind a sotol plant in Big Bend National Park.

It’s one of West Texas’s most exciting wildlife stories. Black bears had been hunted out here by 1960. But in the late 80s, they returned to Big Bend National Park, from the mountains of Mexico. And the story isn’t over. From the Davis Mountains to Del Rio, bear sightings are on the rise.

Now, scientists at Alpine’s Borderlands Research Institute are studying bears. They’re tracking the great beasts, as they reclaim this desert-mountain land.

Dr. Amanda Veals Dutt is BRI’s carnivore specialist.

“Because this is a recolonizing population,” Dutt said, “you kind of think about it as they're on the leading edge of this core area in northern Mexico, and they're starting to disperse out and explore new areas.”

Bears are pioneering new territory here. As on any frontier, the situation is rowdy and unpredictable.

The BRI study is a multi-year undertaking. To start, the BRI is using GPS collars to track 30 bears, for insight into their behavior as they expand across the Trans-Pecos.

Grad student Nikole Dickan is spearheading that work. By traveling to GPS “cluster sites,” where bears have lingered, she’s discovering the bear diet. Bears, she’s found, are eating prickly pear and yucca fruits, foraging in ant colonies, and hunting javelinas.

GPS data also reveals where bears are denning in winter. Most dens, Dutt said, are “stereotypical bear caves,” crevices in rocky terrain. But some bears create ground nests amidst dense brush.

Bears are using different dens each year, and some are trying several in a single winter. The bears, it seems, are experimenting, getting a feel for the new terrain.

The GPS data is useful. But Dickan also conducts in-person “den checks.”

“Nicole is a certified badass, to be honest,” Dutt said. “She goes in there. The females are pretty subdued, but you always need to have a little bit of tranquilizer on hand.”

Mother bears give birth in dens, nursing in their sleep. Dickan has confirmed the presence of cubs in West Texas dens.

Another BRI researcher, Matthew Hewitt, has installed scratching posts across the region, where an ursine visitor with an itch can find relief. Analyzing DNA from the posts could reveal how many bears are in West Texas, and how they’re moving across the landscape.

And, indeed, movement is key for these bears. Most don’t appear to have established home ranges, and some travel immense distances, guided by an intimate knowledge of the terrain. In drought conditions, some will cross the Rio Grande for the lusher mountains of Mexico.

Since their return, bears have mostly been greeted with fascination, even delight. That widespread affection distinguishes them from mountain lions, coyotes and wolves, all of which have their partisans, pro and con, in West Texas.

But that could change. Bears are mischievous omnivores, like “giant raccoons,” Dutt said. As their populations grow, they could come to be seen as a nuisance, or a menace.

BRI researchers hope that that by tracking bears, and understanding their habits, they can reduce the potential for negative outcomes. In partnership with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, they’re helping landowners secure deer feeders, and dumpsters, against bears. And they’re educating the public to be “bear aware.”

Dutt said that through a combination of careful science, and a public commitment to coexistence, bears can once again flourish in West Texas.

“I think we're in a really good situation in the Trans-Pecos,” she said, “but it could quickly turn not in the bears’ favor. So I'm glad we've got a lot of really solid partnerships with TPWD and even a ton of landowners in the Trans-Pecos. It's going to make all the difference.”

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