The tracks were so fresh I expected to see their maker appear at any second. Nearly as wide as my two hands combined and nearly as long as my foot there was no doubt these were left by a very large black bear.
I kept my camera ready as any encounter would be up close and personal. In a remote area of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in northern California, I was at a stretch of river where huge boulders lined the shores, creating a rugged maze.
It was wall to wall granite with the ground being a mix of smaller rock and sand. The tracks that ended at a huge flat outcropping led me close to the river. The view was stunning and I took time to savor the moment but my quarry remained elusive.
An hour later I found myself a few hundred yards above this location.Out of the corner of my eye, I caught slight movement.
Through the binoculars what looked at first like a bush turned out to be a black bear standing as if something had caught its attention too.
I am not sure if it was the same bear whose tracks I had followed.
Perhaps it had caught scent I left behind but one thing is for sure. The chill that ran down my spine at that moment reminded me of why I pursue wildlife and on this occasion wildlife might have very well been pursuing me.
After all, I was in this majestic animal’s domain.
Ursus americanus is the most abundant bear on the planet with an estimated 600,000 scattered throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico. They are a true wildlife conservation success story but not all is well.
Parts of their historic range are devoid of bear while some others are starting to see the first sign in decades.
Texas is a prime example. Ursula americanus eremicus, the Mexican black bear, is protected from harvest in Mexico and over the last two decades they have been spilling into Texas from the Sierra Del Carmen Mountains.
Most of the population is centered around Big Bend National Park but there are verified bear sightings and road kills near Alpine and also as far east as Kerr County.
In fact, bear sightings in the Texas Hill Country have increased dramatically in recent years. One even paid fisheries biologists at the Heart of the Hills Hatchery near Ingram a visit.
A similar yet less documented return is happening in East Texas where black bears from Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma are crossing the state line. Most of these are subadult males searching out mates and in most cases they are striking out.
We did however verify at least one denning mother in Newton County dating back several years. These are Ursus americans luteolus, the Louisiana black bear, an animal designated as a threatened species since 1992 under the Endangered Species Act but recently moved off of that list due to reported population increases.
Consider me one.
Over the years I have written dozens of articles and broadcast many radio programs promoting bear restoration in Texas. I have found this position slightly controversial at times but by and large most people have been very supportive.
You see when people learn to understand bears they respect them and when they respect them they do not mind sharing the woods with them.
Bears represent wildness and this writer will never forget the wildness I felt looking over the picturesque landscape in northern California and seeing that huge, stunning bear.
That’s the kind of encounter that leads me into the woods and will continue to do so. Let’s hope there are many more opportunities to encounter bears throughout America and even in my home state.
Their return has already begun. Let’s do what we can to help them along.
Chester Moore, Jr.