Nature Notes : Black Bears in the Borderlands

They inspire both wonder – and fear. They’re part of the mythology of almost every Native American tribe. Few animals are as fascinating as the bear.

During the last three decades, black bears have made a remarkable return to Texas’ Big Bend. Bears are native to the region, but they went through some hard times.

Bonnie McKinney has spent more than 30 years studying wildlife in the Big Bend borderlands – at Black Gap Wildlife Management Area and in Mexico’s Carmen Mountains. She’s worked with pronghorn, with peregrine falcons and bighorn sheep. But bears are her favorite.They’re intelligent, she said.

“A bear finds a jar, he’ll find a way to open that lid – not break the jar, but open the lid,” McKinney said. “Watching a sow with the cubs is like a watching a human mama trying to scold kids – I’ve seen them swat them on the butt.”

The American black bear was once found throughout Texas. But beginning in the 19th century, hunters and changes to habitat reduced its numbers. Bears were also killed during a federally supported program to eradicate the Mexican wolf. By the 1950s, bears had all but vanished from the state.

Then, in the 1980s, they began to reappear in the Big Bend region. McKinney recalled that time.

“In ‘82, I drove up to a stock tank on Black Gap, and there was the biggest bear,” she said. “It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s a black bear!’ and it looked like he took the whole tank water with him when he left.”

Since then, sightings have been on the rise in Big Bend National Park. Visitors reported 27 bear sightings in 1988 – and 572 in 1996.

In the arid Big Bend region, black bears are smaller than elsewhere. Here, a large male bear can weigh 400 pounds. Females are generally 120 pounds or less.

These bears are finely tuned to the desert-mountain habitat. They eat the nuts of piñon pines. Acorns from oaks are a critical food source. But they also make good use of lowland vegetation.

Emerging from their winter rest, they’ll eat prickly pear tunas until their muzzles are stained red. The hearts of yuccas are also a favorite food.

“They just kind of wade into it and they pull the center, pull the heart right out of that plan,” McKinney said. “They only eat about an inch off the end of that – that’s sweet, it’s very high in sugar. And then they lay it down by the plant, and they move on to the next one. You can literally track an old bear by his yucca trail.”

McKinney has found that 98 percent of local bear diet is vegetation. But bears will also kill elk calves, deer fawn and javelinas. And they’ll help themselves to whatever a mountain lion has killed – once they’ve run off the lion.

McKinney said the bears’ ability to negotiate rugged terrain is impressive.

“A bear can get in some pretty amazing places,” she said, “especially these sows when they go to den up in the winter – like a hole in a cliff. You’re thinking, How did she even get in it? Now, how’s she going to get cubs out of it?

  What accounts for the bear’s return?

While bears were practically wiped out in West Texas, they endured in isolated mountains in Coahuila and Chihuahua, Mexico. The preservation and restoration of habitat in West Texas – at Big Bend park and elsewhere – likely paved the way their return.

Among wildlife in West Texas, the black bear resurgence is unique, McKinney said.

“Many of our species that we extirpate, or that we reduce the numbers to where they’re almost extirpated, you have to reintroduce them – man has to reintroduce,” she said. “Something that’s pretty amazing is the blear bear is doing it on his own. Over the years now, they’ve been able to grow, and they’re just dispersing on their own. That’s a good thing – that’s what you want to happen.”

McKinney says its understandable some landowners might not welcome the bears’ return. They can wreck havoc on deer feeders, and make a lot of mischief. But in the vast rangelands of the Big Bend, bears can coexist usually without a problem.

Black bears will always be rare in West Texas. But for many, it’s exciting to know they’re back.

Nature Notes is sponsored by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart. Nature Notes is broadcast on Marfa Public Radio, 93.5 FM, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:45 a.m. and 3:45 p.m. Mountain time.

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