The arid Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas and stately pine forests of East Texas could hardly be more different, yet as recently as 100 years ago, each region was habitat for large numbers of black bears.
Recent spates of reported black bear sightings in East Texas have brought biologists out to scour the region, which includes The Nature Conservancy’s 1,334-acre Lennox Woods Preserve, a tremendously rich region boasting one of the most beautiful old growth forests in the state.
The Lennox lands sport 39 different grasses and sedges, 51 unique trees species and more than 90 types of wildflowers. This is East Texas as the bears knew it, before European-American settlement decimated populations across the state.
Preserve Manager Jim Eidson said evidence suggests a pair of male bears have been exploring the area for about a year.
“There was a time when these fascinating creatures were a common sight across much of the state,” Eidson said. “Nowadays, these bears, when they are sighted, are found in the Chisos and Guadalupe mountains of West Texas. But it's likely that with a growing population of black bears in Louisiana and Arkansas, we'll see bears slowly moving back into East Texas, as well.”
The most common bear in North America, black bears can weigh in at 300 pounds and reach six feet in length when fully grown. Black bears were so common in East Texas during the state’s early days, that during a two-year period in the 1880s, two hunters in Liberty County reportedly killed 182 black bears within a 10-mile radius. Bear meat was popular, with the fat used as a cooking oil by both Anglo settlers and Native Americans.
Bears feed on a wide variety of fare, everything from insects, roots and berries, to carrion. However, they are deeply dependent on wildlife corridors to move about, making them vulnerable to human development and habitat loss. While sightings have increased in East Texas since the 1990s, there is as yet no evidence of a breeding population.
For more information on black bears or other species of conservation concern, visit nature.org/texas.