The eyes always tell the story. Having encountered thousands of wild animals over the years, my attention is always drawn to their eyes because they reveal so much about demeanor and intelligence.
The eyes looking at me from just a couple of feet away revealed a thinking creature―a curious creature. In this case, it was a 350-pound black bear named Barnaby.
A couple of years ago, I filmed a bear segment for my GETV God’s Outdoors with Chester Moore at Sharkarosa Wildlife Ranch (www.sharkarosa.com) near Denton with founder Scott Edwards.
For the episode, we filmed a bear encounter with Barnaby and a similar-sized female named Bailey, three-year-old bears both rescued from a bad situation and trained to be ambassador animals.
“You can train wild animals,” Edwards said, “but you cannot make them tame. There is a difference.”
Sharkarosa is an amazing facility that propagates a variety of endangered species and does educational outreach on behalf of everything from sloths to Père David’s deer.
I came to get a little deeper understanding of bears because these great animals are returning to Texas in surprising numbers.
“Black bears are one of the few large mammals in North America that wasn’t endangered at some point,” Edwards said. “They continue to thrive and in many areas even live right alongside large numbers of people.”
“When people leave them alone they go stealth and are very rarely seen,” he said, “but when people start feeding them and treating wild bears as if they are pets then trouble starts.”
Wildlife managers say “a fed bear is a dead bear.” Bears accustomed to receiving food from people are often removed from the population to prevent them from harming people.
“Black bears rarely attack people,” Edwards said, “but you don’t want to invite problems by conditioning them to come around people.The truth is the bear will probably get hurt before a person ever does. We need to keep the interest of the animals in mind as well,”
One of the chief reasons for filming me as I interacted with bears was to show that once they become accustomed to people they lose fear.
There has been a sharp increase in bear sightings in East Texas and the Hill Country along with an expanding population in the Trans-Pecos region.
The black bear is a part of Texas’s natural heritage and forest ecology, the Louisiana black bear is on the federal threatened species list and is the focus of an ongoing restoration effort in Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma. “Black bears appear to be poised for a slow return in East Texas,” said Nathan Garner, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) biologist in Tyler.
A possible obstacle to the bear’s return in the region is poaching, which still looms large in some areas. Shooting a Louisiana black bear (which all bears in East Texas are considered to be) is a state and federal crime. Because they come under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), fines could be as high as $25,000 and come with six months jail time.
Another potential problem is misidentification. Bear and feral hogs can look similar at a distance, especially when you’re not expecting to see a bear.
Bear sightings were giving people in the Texas Hill Country a shock in 2011 during the prolonged drought. A press release noted that wildlife biologists were advising hunters, ranchers and rural residents about black bears that appear to be roaming longer distances. These bears may approach people or houses in search of food and water because of the drought.
“If conditions remain dry, people could see more bears,” said Mike Krueger, district leader of the Edwards Plateau Wildlife District for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
“We are getting a few reports of people seeing bears during daylight hours, and that is unusual,” Krueger said.
“It’s the associated water around homes and the food. The pet food, the smell of cooking―all those things could attract bears.”
The rain situation has changed in some of the state, but the need for people to be bear savvy has not. “We need to encourage everyone to be more tolerant of bears,” Krueger said.
“We recommend people try to scare bears away, or go to a safe place and call us. But killing a bear should be a last resort unless a person is truly threatened.”
According to TPWD, bears are omnivores, meaning they eat almost anything. Research shows free-roaming black bears are mainly vegetarians, and up to 90 percent of their diet is vegetable material, including nuts, fruits, berries and plants. Most of the protein in a bear’s diet comes from insects such as beetles, wasps, termites and ants.
According to the TPWD brochure “Bear Safety in Mind,” bears are normally shy and not aggressive to humans.
“But if a bear regularly visits a ranch or deer stand, people should try to scare it with rocks, a slingshot or air horn. If people encounter a bear at close range, they should talk calmly while backing away slowly. Don’t make direct eye contact, and don’t run away.
If a bear approaches you, stand your ground and raise your arms, backpack or jacket to appear larger. Yell at the bear to scare it off.”
That’s why it is important for people entering bear country to get educated about these great animals. Their comeback is happening right now. Four years ago we created black bear educational posters that were distributed as digital downloads to hundreds of individuals, teachers, scout leaders and church groups. If you would like one, email me at [email protected] and I will get you a copy.
Just the thought of seeing a black bear here in Texas makes things seem a bit wilder and gives hope to those of us concerned about the wildlife and wildlife habitat.
My encounter while filming at Sharkarosa gave me an even deeper respect for the black bear than I had before. In their eyes, I saw a glimpse of wildness. In my wild life that serves as a deep source of inspiration.
Story by Chester Moore