Video of the event is linked at the bottom of this post.
There were several takeaways from the “Living with Black Bear in West Texas” workshops hosted by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) in Terlingua, January 21.
“Texas is black bear country,” was an oft-repeated phrase. It’s a fairly new concept for an area that has gone without a notable black bear presence for several decades.
Communities in the Big Bend are on the frontline of the black bear’s re-expansion into Texas. As such, these residents will set the standard on how to deal with black bears in the state.
Another key message was that it will require practice, patience, time and broad support to become a bear wise community, and Texas Parks and Wildlife is here to offer support along the way.
Topics of the day included black bear history in Texas, updates on local black bear issues, the basics of black bear behavior, how to prevent habituation around homes, and an introduction to the work the Borderlands Research Institute is conducting on its long-term black bear research project.
The re-expansion of black bears into Texas has the potential to be a great conservation success story.
The following notes are from the day’s workshops.
History of Black Bears in Texas
We learned about black bear history from TPWD Wildlife Diversity Biologist Krysta Demere, who is also the main point of contact regarding black bear sightings. Krysta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Reports from the 1890s show that black bear were plentiful in the mountain ranges throughout the Big Bend region, from the Chisos Mountains in the south to the Davis Mountains in the north.
- Recipes from the early nineteenth century suggest black bear was a popular delicacy.
- By the 1950s, black bear had been hunted to the point of no longer maintaining a breeding population in Texas.
- Mexico was first to classify black bears as endangered, putting an end to black bear hunting in that country in 1985.
- In 1987, Texas followed suit and classified black bears as endangered.
- In 1988, a visitor to Big Bend National Park saw a mother black bear with three cubs, signaling the reemergence of a breeding population in Texas.
Update on Local Black Bear Issues
Krysta provided a timeline of events surrounding the black bear who repeatedly returned to dumpsters in Terlingua Ghostown and what led to TPWD’s decision to relocate that bear.
- On Nov. 6, 2022, Krysta received the first report of a black bear searching for food in Terlingua Ghostown dumpsters.
- The next day, Nov. 7, TPWD personnel went to Terlingua Ghostown and distributed information about how to prevent black bears from gaining access to human sources of food.
- On Nov. 8, TPWD deployed aversive conditioning tactics to chase the black bear away from the vicinity.
- On Nov. 9, Krysta received reports that the bear had returned to the dumpsters.
- On Nov. 10, TPWD deployed more aggressive aversive conditioning, including the use of a paintball gun and rubber buckshot.
- Reports of the bear returning continued, and on Nov. 14, TPWD deployed aversive conditioning for the 3rd time to chase the bear away from the vicinity.
- Within 15 minutes of those tactics on Nov. 14, the bear returned to the Ghostown, indicating that aversive conditioning tactics would not work.
- With the help of BRI, TPWD trapped and relocated the bear to Black Gap Wildlife Management Area.
- Within days, the bear walked from Black Gap heading west, until it came upon the Terlingua Ranch community, where it recognized a familiar association of food and humans. The bear began to look for food in the dumpsters in Terlingua Ranch.
- TPWD personnel worked with Terlingua Ranch businesses and residents to place electrified grids under the dumpsters until bear-proof replacements arrived.
Report Black Bear Sightings to Multiple Sources
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department relies on citizen reporting to fill in the gaps about black bear data. They welcome reports about any black bear sightings and ask that reports be made to the wildlife diversity biologist at email@example.com.
It’s also important to notify local law enforcement so they’re aware of black bear sightings.
Additionally, it is important to notify neighbors and neighborhood associations so that people in the area can take extra measures to discourage black bears from the area.
Bear Facts and Behaviors
- “Think of them as 300-pound raccoons. Anywhere a raccoon would be attracted, so would a black bear,” TPWD Presidio County biologist Rachael Connally said.
- Black bears can smell up to two miles away.
- They hone in on attractants that offer more calories.
- Black bears are omnivores and eat mostly plants.
- They smash the outer leaves of yuccas and sotol to get to the hearts.
- They will eat meat if they can get it.
- Black bears rarely attack humans. In many instances, the attack was due to a loose dog aggravating the black bear, or the presence of food resources, or a mother being protective over her cubs.
- A bear that does not feel threatened will go about its business foraging for food without paying much attention to the presence of a human in the vicinity. It is important to give black bears plenty of space and leave them alone.
- Bears become more bold when they don’t receive consequences.
- Jaw popping, stomping, bluff charging, huffing. When a bear displays defensive behaviors, it is important to slowly back away while making noise, and if necessary, deploy bear spray.
Predatory behavior (rare)
- Silent stalking. This type of behavior is very rare but highlights the importance of making noise when walking on trails to warn wildlife of your presence. Also, TPWD recommends carrying bear spray and knowing how to use it. In situations when a black bear may be showing too much interest in human activity, deploying a spritz of bear spray toward the animal can be very effective in running it off.
Avoid Black Bear Encounters When Outdoors
Avoid black bear encounters when hiking or walking: be aware of your surroundings, hike in groups and stay together, keep children within sight, keep dogs on a leash or at home, make noise in thick cover, carry bear spray.
Prevent Black Bear Habituation Around Homes
The black bear population is growing and spreading into habitats they formerly occupied, but people in those areas are no longer accustomed to living in the same vicinity as black bear, so new habits must be learned.
- Prevent bears from receiving human sources of food in the first place.
- Avoid allowing bears to get a free meal.
- Avoid allowing bears to eat from wildlife feeders. Allowing bears to feed from wildlife feeders creates a dangerous association in the bear’s mind and can cause problems in other scenarios with bears seeking out humans for sources of food.
- Create space between your home and any wildlife feeders.
- Take down wildlife feeders during black bear hyperphagia (the time of year between November and December when bears are working hard to pack on intense amounts of calories and fat for winter).
- Place corn feeders far away from houses to help prevent the association of easy meals with humans.
- Make unwelcome mats to place under bird feeders.
- Secure pet food, used pet food bowls, and livestock feed.
- Keep outdoor cooking areas and grills clean and store utensils in a secured location.
- Contact your disposal provider to inquire about receiving a bear-proof dumpster.
TPWD personnel will work with residents to create a site-specific plan for securing gardens, compost piles, deer feeders, and other bear attractants. Contact the local TPWD Trans-Pecos Wildlife District to make an appointment. For more information about the TPWD Trans-Pecos Wildlife District, go to https://tpwd.texas.gov/landwater/land/habitats/trans_pecos/regulatory/.
Update on BRI’s Project: “Understanding Natural Recolonization of Black Bears in West Texas”
This multiyear research project began summer/fall 2022 and will continue for five or more years tracking the movements of black bears and learning about their ecology in West Texas.
This research will support multiple graduate theses through Sul Ross State University.
Overarching goals include gaining a better understanding of black bear population ecology and aiding in understanding drivers of human-black bear conflict. Short-term goals are to better understand black bear seasonal movement and behavior, learn about fine-scale habitat selection, and create movement and population modeling.
Ten bears (nine males, one female) have been collared so far, with an additional 20 planned for spring/summer 2023.
Areas of study could extend from Terlingua to the Davis Mountains and as far east as the Devils River corridor.
So far, tracking black bears has revealed that they can cover a lot of ground, with one bear covering 128 miles in 30 days.
See our pamphlet below for more details.
To watch videos of the workshops, visit our YouTube playlist or click the following links for individual sessions: