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Jun 11, 2010 1:58 PM by Chris Welty

Bears Lumbering Back Into East Texas

CLARKSVILLE, Texas (AP) - Before hunting season began, Don
"Dink" Benton set up a motion sensor camera on his east Texas
ranch to learn what kind of deer roamed his land along the Oklahoma
border. What he saw as he went through the pictures was a shock: a
black bear exploring a feeder, then investigating the camera.
"When we got this picture, all of a sudden, it added up," said
Benton, who had been wondering how some of the deer feeders on his
3,000-acre ranch had gotten knocked over last summer.
Bears are slowly returning to the woods of east Texas thanks to
thriving bear populations in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana,
wildlife officials say. As a result, sightings in east Texas have
been on the rise, up from just five in the 1980s to 54 in the
2000s.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials believe most of
the bears that have made their way to Texas are young males. They
will roam hundreds of miles to stake out their own territory away
from other males, which can grow to weigh around 350 pounds and
stand 6 feet tall. The bears coming into Texas from Oklahoma and
Arkansas are the American black bear, while those from Louisiana
are the Louisiana black bear.
"Anytime you have bears moving into new country, the first ones
to show up are going to be males," said Nathan Garner, the
department's wildlife director in east Texas. "It takes longer for
the females to show up."
Wildlife officials are hopeful that females, who usually stay
closer to their mothers and don't travel as far, will eventually
make their way to Texas as well and they'll establish a new
breeding population in the state.
"Once they get here in decent numbers, in the next 20 years,
we'll have a population eventually. They're expanding," said
Christopher Comer, assistant professor of forest wildlife
management at Stephen F. Austin State University. The university
has joined with the parks and wildlife department to study bears
and their habitat in northeast Texas and is starting a similar
project in southeast Texas.
Garner said a combination of unregulated hunting and a loss of
habitat caused bears to virtually disappear from Texas by the
mid-1940s. The state has two breeding populations in far West
Texas, a small population in Guadalupe Mountains National Park,
located on the New Mexico border, and a population in Big Bend
National Park that was established after bears from Mexico made
their way across the border in the 1980s. Some of the Big Bend
bears have even ventured into the western edges of Hill Country.
East Texas has the elements for good bear habitat, including
food, cover and areas with few humans. There are about 12 million
acres of undeveloped private and public land throughout east Texas,
ranging from the Red River that marks the state's border with
Oklahoma down to the Beaumont area, Garner said.
Many of the bear sightings in east Texas in the past five years
have been in Red River County - with nine sightings last year.
The county is primarily rural and the human population there has
been decreasing, going from about 14,300 in 1990 to an estimated
12,800 in 2009. "That may help explain why bears are coming back
as well," Garner said.
Bears are primarily vegetarians, feeding on blackberries,
grapes, acorns, leaves and other forest goods, and that makes
people more comfortable with their return, he said.
Tommy Archer, who has caught pictures of bears on the land in
Red River County where he shares a hunting lease, said he isn't
afraid of them. "I know what not to do: Don't get between a bear
and its food. Don't get between a mother and a cub," he said.
About four years ago, the state parks and wildlife department
helped form the East Texas Black Bear Task Force, made up of
private and public entities and landowners, to implement a bear
conservation plan in east Texas. Goals include research and
educating people about bears, which are protected from hunting by
state law.
The task force is also part of the nonprofit Black Bear
Conservation Coalition, which promotes restoration of the Louisiana
black bear to its historic range in Louisiana and parts of
Mississippi, Arkansas and east Texas.
"The bear was really neglected for a lot of years," said Paul
Davidson, the coalition's executive director. "What I've seen in
20 years of working on this is bear populations can rebound."
To help the bear population, the coalition encourages landowners
to plant trees to create forest corridors where the bears and other
wildlife can roam. The cost is shared between the landowner, the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Black Bear Conservation
Coalition.
That's just what Jeff Pennington, who manages a Red River County
ranch on about 4,000 acres, said he and the landowner have been
working to do.
Looking over a large swath of land with rows of saplings planted
between two areas of forested land, Pennington says, "We're trying
to connect these woods with that set of woods."
"Anything you do to help the bear, you're going to help the
deer and the turkey - help the whole ecosystem," Pennington said.
Texas wildlife officials are relying on east Texas residents to
report any bear sightings in hopes of getting a better picture of
the population. Officials say that while people have reported
seeing bear cubs, they don't yet have scientific evidence, like a
picture of a cub or a cub track, to be certain.
Ricky Maxey, a state wildlife biologist, said there isn't enough
data to even make a population estimate.
"We're probably in the double digits, probably in single digits
in most counties," he said.
Garner said they also don't know whether the bears are staying
in Texas all the time. "We don't know until we put transmitters on
them if they're moving across state lines frequently," Garner
said.
He said they hope to tag bears within the next five years to
learn more about east Texas' population.
Despite their increased numbers, bears remain a rarity in east
Texas.
"They're almost like ghosts. They really are," Garner said.

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