One of the cool things about leaving a game camera in the woods is you never know what might be on the flash card when you go back to review the images. Game managers and deer hunters routinely use cameras to monitor deer movements around corn feeders and along well-beaten trails, but whitetails aren’t the only critters that sometimes walk in front of the viewfinder.
A few East Texas landowners have been making some neat discoveries at their game camera sets in recent months, and their findings have grabbed the attention of wildlife biologists all around the region.
We’ve got bears, folks.
Since August, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wildlife experts in Tyler have fielded a number of reports from landowners/hunters about black bears on their property. Four of the incidents have been substantiated with photographs deemed authentic enough for biologists to call them “Class 1” sightings.
“That’s part of the criteria we use for establishing a Class 1 sighting,” said Dave Holderman, a TPWD wildlife diversity biologist based in Tyler. “It’s where we have some type of physical proof (such as a carcass), an expert eyewitness account or photographic evidence that we are able to substantiate as authentic.”
Holderman is TPWD’s point man when it comes to black bears in this neck of the woods. He said all of the recent Class 1 sightings — one in Bowie County near Dekalb, one in Smith County about 10 miles from Whitehouse and two in northern Red River County — were accompanied by game camera photographs taken around corn feeders on private property. One photo series shows a bear approaching a feeder, then running away after it apparently knocked the feeder over to get at the goodies inside.
This isn’t the first time an East Texas landowner has yelled bear to TPWD and follow-up investigations have turned up rock-solid evidence to support the claim. Holderman noted that there have been around 20 Class 1 sightings documented in eastern Texas over the last 20 years. Most have occurred in counties in far northeast Texas near Oklahoma and Arkansas, both of which have significant black bear populations.
The biologist added that the department has responded to numerous other reports of black bears in eastern Texas over the years, but a high percentage of them have lacked evidence convincing enough to be labeled as Class 1.
Holderman said there have been about 2-6 “Class 2” sightings recorded annually in East Texas over the last four years. A sighting is considered a Class 2 when there is a detailed description of a bear made by an experienced observer, but no physical or verifiable photographic evidence is obtained.
“Those Class 2 sightings have occurred over a much broader area spanning down into southeast Texas counties like Polk, Angelina and Tyler,” Holderman said.
TPWD District 6 leader Gary Calkins of Jasper ruled on a Class 2 sighting about three months ago in Newton County. While investigating the report, Calkins said he found what looked to be bear sign on some trees, but there were no tracks, hair or other definitive evidence to say it was a bear for certain.
“It’s been a pretty good while since we’ve had Class 1 sighting in southeast Texas, but we have had some very credible reports where we just didn’t have the physical evidence to bump the sighting to a Class 1,” Holderman said. “Louisiana has a lot of black bears and they are ranging westward. I would suspect that the Class 2 sightings in southeast Texas are bears that are coming across the Sabine River out of Louisiana.”
According to past TPWD reports, there have been a couple of sightings of sows with cubs — one in Shelby County in 1993 and another in Jasper County in 1995.
Holderman notes that the most recent Class 1 sightings in Red River, Bowie and Smith counties are the first Class 1 sightings documented in East Texas since Sept. 2011. It is also the first-ever Class 1 black bear sighting documented in Smith County.
“The Smith County bear is the most surprising to me, but if you look at it on a scale of how far a bear can travel it’s not that far from the source population, which is likely southeast Oklahoma or southwest Arkansas. There are lots of bears in that country.”
Depending on how you map it, the Smith County bear may have traveled 100-150 miles, possibly farther, to find its way to the Whitehouse area where it was ultimately documented by a game camera. What experts can’t say for certain is what caused the bear to leave its home range and trek so deep into eastern Texas, but Holderman offered up a couple of good guesses.
“It’s purely speculation, but I would guess that the two things that might drive a bear out of a source population in Arkansas, Oklahoma or Louisiana are either a food shortage in the region of those source populations or some sort of population density factor,” he said. “Bears aren’t good dispersers because the females don’t disperse well at all. The males are programmed to start dispersing once they become independent from their mother.
“I think the best hypothesis for what is going on is that those bears might range out 100 miles or so from their natal area looking around for other bears,” he added. “Ultimately, a young male is going to be looking for a female to breed. Once they get over here where this no resident bear population they figure it out pretty quickly and they go in a different direction or head back towards their natal population.”
Interestingly, there was a time when eastern Texas was home to large numbers of black bears and other animals like the red wolf, jaguar and mountain lion whose populations were wiped by early settlers who lumbered their habitat and shot them into oblivion.
Holderman said native native populations of black bears in East Texas were pretty much wiped out by 1910 by hunters. Early reports document that two Liberty County hunters once killed 182 bears within a 10-mile radius of the Trinity River drainage between 1883-85. According to TPWD reports, the last native black bear shot in East Texas is believed to have been killed in the late 1950s in Polk County.
That’s sad stuff to think about. Maddening in a sense.
What’s even sadder is that the damage will probably never be reversed, despite efforts to help push the process along.
In 2005, TPWD adopted the East Texas Black Bear Conservation and Management Plan and established the East Texas Black Bear Task Force to work towards helping restore black bear populations to their native range through education, research and habitat management.
TPWD has always stood fast that stocking bears isn’t part of the plan. And it never will be without public and political support to back it.
Instead the goal of the department and its coalition of partners is to educate people about bears and to conduct research to identify suitable habitat for them should the spillover from other adjacent states continue.
With deer season just around the corner, East Texas hunters headed to the woods are reminded to be sure of their targets and not mistake a black bear for an outsize feral hog. The bears are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act and shooting one could be costly.
Sightings are rare, but if you are fortunate enough to see one, take a picture if you can or report it to TPWD so they check things out. Contact Holderman at 903-566-1626 or Calkins at 409-384-6894.
Black bears never totally disappeared in Texas but their numbers certainly plummeted after years of poaching.
Now over the last two decades a small but steady trickle of bears from Mexico have moved into and inhabited the Trans Pecos and an increase in reports in East Texas suggest migration from Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
That variety of black bear is Ursus americanus luteolus, the Louisiana Black Bear and it was just removed from the federal list of threatened species, although it remains on the Texas list.
Shooting a black bear in Texas is a state crime, which could get a poacher in serious trouble.
Another potential problem is misidentification, since bears and feral hogs can look similar at a distance, especially when someone is not expecting to see a bear.
According to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (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.”
Unlike grizzly encounters where playing dead could be a saving grace, it could make things worse if a black bear decides to attack. The proper response to a black bear attack is to fight back.
Attacks are super rare and if current trends continue there will likely be more black bear sightings in Texas. 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.