By now, you may have seen or heard the story making the rounds this week about a black bear observed on Preston Peninsula out towards Lake Texoma.
Seen and photographed a few days ago by a man walking in an area a few miles north of Pottsboro, the sighting is the second black bear to be seen roaming in Grayson County in the last few years. You might remember that in June 2018, another black bear was sighted near Bells, and then a few days later, near Whitewright.
Certainly, black bear sightings aren’t common in Grayson County. But the secretive bruins aren’t as uncommon as you might think either, especially as you move into other parts of Texas and Oklahoma.
In the Lone Star State, a few black bear sightings are reported occasionally, mostly from the desert terrain of the Trans Pecos region into the western Hill Country. Occasionally, black bears are observed in parts of the northwestern Texas Panhandle not far from Dalhart, in the Pineywoods of eastern Texas near the Louisiana border, and in several Red River Counties lying from Denison to the east towards Texarkana.
According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (www.tpwd.texas.gov), those sightings out west come from the two subspecies that call Texas home, the Mexican Black Bear (Ursus americanus eremicus) and the New Mexico Black Bear (Ursus americanus amblyceps). While there is thought to be some limited reproduction of the Mexican Black Bear in two or three rugged counties along the Rio Grande River, the bear subspecies are actually state-listed as endangered in Texas.
Obviously, the bears seen here in Grayson County in recent years aren’t a part of either subspecies found well to our west and southwest. Instead, they have likely wandered south out of eastern Oklahoma, where enough black bears exist that some limited hunting is allowed for bowhunters and muzzleloader hunting enthusiasts each fall.
Once common in the Sooner State, bear sightings became rare in Oklahoma by the early 1900s according to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (www.wildlifedepartment.com). ODWC says that the sightings decreased over time due to land use changes, habitat fragmentation, and unregulated hunting.
But in the late 1900s, black bears started making a comeback on the northern side of the Red River, thanks to a successful reintroduction of the species in the Ouachita and Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. After 250 black bears were relocated from Manitoba, Canada and Minnesota into the rugged terrain of western Arkansas, the bear population there steadily grew into the thousands, with many bears expanding their range into eastern Oklahoma and southwestern Missouri.
So successful were the reintroduction efforts in Arkansas that a renewed black bear hunting season was opened there in 1980. And in southeastern Oklahoma — including portions of Bryan and Atoka counties to the east of Hwy. 69 — bear hunting is now a part of the autumn hunting landscape with archery and muzzleloader seasons each fall.
According to ODWC, modern-day bear hunting began in Oklahoma back in 2009 with four southeastern counties (Le Flore, Latimer, McCurtain, and Pushmataha) holding the state’s initial hunt.
While a quota of 20 bears is set for the muzzleloader season each year in late October, ODWC says that in the last few years, the actual harvest figure hasn’t come close to that number. That doesn’t mean that bear hunters aren’t successful, however, just that most black bear harvest in Oklahoma is by archers hunting in the early days of October when no harvest quota is in place.
In fact, Oklahoma’s bear hunters harvested 85 bears in 2018 (the last year that statistics are currently available for), a record high and more than double the harvest figure of 40 bears the year before.
In its 2018-19 Big Game Report, ODWC says that hunters took 51 bears in Le Flore County, which is typically the Sooner State’s leader in black bear harvest each year. Latimer County yielded 13 bears for the year; Pushmataha County, 20 bears; and McCurtain County, one bear.
In all, ODWC says that 78 bears (43 boars and 35 sows) were harvested during the 2018 archery season, and seven bears (four boars and three sows) were taken during the 2018 muzzleloader season. With all or part of 13 counties now open for bear hunting in the Sooner State, ODWC notes that typically, about three-fourths of the state’s total bear harvest each year occurs on private land.
While there are no bear harvest figures available yet for the 2019 season in Oklahoma, last fall was expected to be a good one.
“The bears are in the best shape that I have seen in the past several years,” said Jeff Ford, an ODWC biologist, before the 2019 season began. “We have had above average rainfall (in 2019), and the mast crop should be above average.”
As black bears thrive and become even more established in eastern Oklahoma, ODWC says that the chances of people encountering one are increasing. And with that expansion of black bear numbers and range, the odds of more bears swimming across the Red River are increasing too.
While no hunting of black bears currently exists in Texas — it is important to note that it is illegal to shoot a black bear in Texas and doing so can result in being jailed, a hefty fine, and loss of hunting privileges — the bruins aren’t as rare as they once were in the Lone Star State.
Why are they occasionally appearing in the woods and uplands of the Lone Star State’s Red River counties? From looking at the photos of the two bears seen in Grayson County over the last few years, it seems to my untrained eye that they are youngsters.
In the wild, young bears can relocate when older, mature animals dominate a certain patch of turf. When that’s the case the youngsters can wander, looking for unoccupied turf, food sources and maybe even a chance at a little black bear romance as they mature.
While black bear sightings are an occasional cause for excitement right now, perhaps over time enough bruins will start to wander south and begin making their home in remote portions of Grayson County and points to the east.
Someday, if they start getting numerous enough in the Red River counties of northeastern Texas, maybe enough will call the region home that some sort of legal hunting season might eventually be opened as numbers allow.
For our local backyard, that idea seems a long way off, if not a little far-fetched, especially as the Metro-mess continues to surge northward out of Dallas/Fort Worth and gobble up existing wildlife habitat that a lot of people call real estate. Black bears need some wild country to call home and every strip shopping mall and three-acre ranchette that gets bought and sold in this part of the world makes it less likely that black bears will ever be a viable part of the Grayson County landscape in modern times.
But for now, the county remains just wild enough and just rugged enough that a few of the shaggy predators are willing to see what the terrain south of the Red River has to offer.
While it would be cool to see more, at least for now, there’s a chance to see a black bear roaming the local countryside. And how cool is that?
Editor’s Note: As mentioned above, while some limited legal hunting for black bears occurs in portions of Oklahoma and Arkansas, it is illegal to shoot a black bear in the state of Texas.
As noted by TPWD, the black bear is on the state endangered species list. The agency’s biologists encourage people to report any bear sightings to TPWD (www.tpwd.texas.gov ; (800) 792-1112) as the agency continues to assess bear populations in Texas.
The agency also notes on its website that black bears are not as dangerous as some people think since most of their diet is vegetation. That means that they pose less of a threat for livestock and pets than they do for trash and pet food that is left outside.
While black bears seldom approach people or pets, if you have a problem with a black bear or they act menacing towards pets and livestock, contact one of the local TPWD game wardens.
To learn more about bears and what to do if you encounter one in Oklahoma, visit ODWC’s website at www.wildlifedepartment.com/bear-encounters.