View Full Version : Black bears coming back to E. Texas

08-09-2009, 02:01 PM
I remember some of the old timers saying how they used to hunt bears in the woods.


On the lookout for a Texan of the past
In a murky East Texas swamp, experts are hoping to determine if black bears are making a comeback
Aug. 9, 2009, 12:05AM
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Johnny Hanson Chronicle

Gingerly walking over a wet area, Dan Kaminski, a graduate student at Stephen F. Austin State University, looks for a spot in the Blue Elbow Swamp near Orange to place a bear hair-snare trap.

SOMEWHERE IN BLUE ELBOW SWAMP — Hope, sometimes, is based on the strangest things. Here, deep in the near-impenetrable thickets of the Sabine River basin, it rides on sardines and tampons soaked in pastry filling.

That exotic bait, researchers anticipate, will lure the elusive black bear out of hiding, leaving behind exciting evidence of its renewed presence in its long-abandoned East Texas stomping grounds.

Once legion in the region's swamps and forests, black bears effectively vanished from Texas by the mid-1960s — victims of overhunting and habitat destruction. But now, graduate students from Nacogdoches' Stephen F. Austin State University, heartened by repeated reports of sightings, have taken to the woods to determine how many of the “threatened” animals may have returned.

Under forest wildlife management professor Christopher Comer's supervision, master's degree candidate Dan Kaminski last week began setting hair-snare traps — fragrant baits surrounded by a barbed wire-barrier — in swampland near the Texas-Louisiana border. The three-year project ultimately will encompass a vast swath of East Texas, notably the once bear-infested Big Thicket.
New territory for expert

Kaminski spent the early days of summer grappling with minutiae. He plotted computer grids over the survey area, conferred with state biologists, trimmed lengths of barbed wire and bought embarrassing quantities of Beach Cliff sardines at the supermarket.

“To get something like this from paper to actual implementation in the field,” he allowed, “is pretty exciting.”

At 27, the rail-thin nature lover already is an old hand at wildlife studies. During and after his stint at Iowa State University, where he majored in animal ecology and forestry, Kaminski documented grizzly bears in Montana, radio tagged bighorn sheep in California, trailed linx in Canada and bluebirds in Arizona and, for two seasons, helped manage black bear populations at Yosemite National Park.

But little prepared Kaminski and his colleagues — Comer, technical assistant Austin Wadyko and grad student Tim Siegmund — for the ordeal of pushing through the thorny and snake-filled vastness of Blue Elbow Swamp on a steamy August day.

“This is living the dream,” Comer smirked as he and the others squeezed through a zone of man-sized ragweed plants, stumbled down ravines, slogged through boot-sucking mud, dodged silver-dollar sized spiders and clawed through curtains of tangled vines to finally reach the relative high ground of the first trap site.

Plotting off a 12-by-12 foot area, the team strung a line from tree to tree and suspended three open sardine cans about 6 feet off the ground. A single strand of barbed wire was tacked to nearby trees to encircle the bait.

“I'm putting my wire about 50 centimeters above the ground,” Kaminski said. “That way whatever approaches will either have to go over it or under it. There's a good chance it will leave a sample of hair behind in the barbs.”

Before moving on to the second of the day's six bait sites, Wadyko seared the wire barbs with a butane cigarette lighter to eliminate any stray DNA and Kaminski stapled signs explaining the nature of the wildlife study to trees at the site's perimeter.

Kaminski plans to revisit in two weeks.

Siegmund, 25, recently completed a similar study around the Red and Sulphur rivers in Northeast Texas. His 330 hair-snares attracted a veritable Noah's ark — but only one black bear.
Unrestricted hunting

Comer theorized that the black bears spotted in Texas, especially Southeast Texas, likely are lone males of the Louisiana black bear subspecies that have roamed in from that state. In the early 1980s, the number of black bears in Louisiana, which can live 10 to 15 years, stood at little more than 100. Through federal protection and species management, the population now is thought in excess of 500, Comer said.

“You can go back to early parts of the 20th century, and the Big Thicket was a hot spot for bears,” Comer said. “People came to East Texas to hunt. The black bear was part of the ecosystem, an important animal.”

Austin-based author Thad Sitton, who has written extensively about East Texas history and culture, noted that killing bears in 19th century Texas was a “socially positive activity.” It wasn't uncommon for backwoods denizens to boast of killing hundreds of bears, which were regarded as “hog-killing varmints,” Sitton said.

Bear fat was the fat of choice for cooking, and bears were highly regarded as meat, especially after they had fattened on forest mast in the fall.

By the end of the 19th century, bears in East Texas were on the decline. Bears are slow to sexually mature and reproduce, making it hard for populations to recover from excessive hunting. Clear-cutting of forests drove the final nail in the bruins' coffin, Comer suggested.

“The last bear was killed in East Texas in the mid-1960s,” he said.
Snare traps set

Meanwhile, back in the swamp, Kaminski and his colleagues, scratched and sweat-drenched from their initial outing, plotted their next move.

Siegmund suggested sardine cans be only partially opened lest the contents quickly fall victim to insects.

Kaminski explained that, in efforts to maximize the appeal of his hair-snare traps, he would introduce a new variety of bait: a three-to-one mixture of cattle blood and fish oil. He already has found a slaughter house to provide his supplies.

And with that, Kaminski and company, exchanging bear arcana and cautionary tales of bear studies past, packed their wares and trekked off through the woods.

Deep in the bear-haunted wilds of Blue Elbow Swamp, hope springs eternal.

08-09-2009, 05:28 PM
Well, the prospects are encouraging. If the habitat is there and they are offered good protection the population can rebound.

Thirty years ago black bear were rare in NH. There had been an open season and very few bears remained. Since the Fish and Game department actually started managing the situation, the population growth has been tremendous. It's not unusual to see a bear anywhere in the state now.

A.T. Hagan
08-09-2009, 06:52 PM
If the bears would stay confined to the swamp I'm sure everyone would be delighted. When they start roaming into the settled areas though I have no doubt that a great many folks are going to be less than thrilled.


08-09-2009, 07:48 PM
If the bears would stay confined to the swamp I'm sure everyone would be delighted. When they start roaming into the settled areas though I have no doubt that a great many folks are going to be less than thrilled.

Funny thing about wild animals.

If the number of nuisance animals is noticeable, a hunting season is sure to follow.

There are plenty of pictures in the local newspapers of backyard bears. Most folks react positively to a bear sighting.

A.T. Hagan
08-09-2009, 09:29 PM
There are also plenty of folks in the homesteading, gardening, and livestock forums complaining about them as well.

In the state forest or where ever I like bears a lot. In my pasture, orchard, or garden it would be a very different matter.

There are many, many areas where deer are a terrific nuisance yet no hunting season opens on them.


08-09-2009, 09:45 PM
they are dang sure making a comeback in Florida....

08-09-2009, 09:53 PM
There are many, many areas where deer are a terrific nuisance yet no hunting season opens on them.
Well, that is certainly true and actually there are areas where a bear hunt is going to be out of the question. But the suburban bears are usually young bears looking for territory. Hunting the bears where the production is going on eases the crowding that pushes bears into conflict with humans.