Black bears make a comeback in Davis Mountains

FAR WEST TEXAS – The Ursus americanus, or Black Bear, was once referred to as an “elusive and occasional wanderer” throughout the Davis Mountain Resort (DMR) area, until recent and more frequent sightings have rendered that sentiment obsolete.

Earlier this month, at least one black bear (and perhaps a few) were spotted meandering in and around the Resort area, according to sighting reports by DMR residents via Facebook, and many of their tales abet the notion that the bears are merely “400-pound raccoons,” said DMR resident Paul Van Tine referring to reports he had heard referring to the bears knocking down hummingbird feeders in attending to their sugar cravings and going out of their way to unmannerly grub about for deer corn.

According to Black Bear research conducted at the Borderlands Research Institute at Sul Ross State University, early records by naturalists and accounts from hunting expeditions indicate that the bears, whose range once spanned the vast state of Texas, were once quite abundant in the West Texas region. Historically, black bears inhabited the Davis, Del Notre, Glass, Santiago, Chinati, Guadalupe, Chisos and Vieja mountain ranges before original populations were devastated by loss of habitat and over harvesting throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Reports show that unregulated hunting, habitat loss, and predator control led to their decline by 1950, and in the 1980s, black bear sightings increased in Big Bend National Park. Currently the bear is listed as threatened or endangered by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Since the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, black bears have been naturally and steadily re-colonizing West Texas and the Trans-Pecos region, through dispersal from adjacent Coahuila, Mexico – a rare occurrence for extirpated populations – due in part as a result of effective efforts by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department along with private landowners to manage bears and their habitat.

The Texas Black Bear Alliance states that today, their status and density vary considerably within the current existing range. According to Texas Park and Wildlife, at least two subspecies of black bear currently occupy Texas: the Mexican black bear (Ursus americanus eremicus) and the New Mexico black bear (Ursus americanus amblyceps). Both of these subspecies are found in West Texas desert scrub or woodland habitats within the Chisos and Guadalupe Mountain ranges.

In addressing the most recent sightings in the DMR, research conducted by the Borderlands Research Institute on the transboundary movement by black bears between West Texas and Northern Mexico confirm black bear habitat suitability in the Davis Mountains. While the majority of black bears reside along the southern border of West Texas, confirmed sightings have documented the movement of bears to northern areas of the Trans-Pecos region.

Previous research on the species in the Trans-Pecos region has been focused primarily on Big Bend National Park and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area. However, the Davis Mountains, with its high elevations and woodland vegetation, have also been identified as potentially suitable for the black bear. The institute evaluated eight ecological sites that occurred on the Davis Mountain Preserve. For each ecological site, a vegetation inventory was conducted of trees, shrubs, and cacti, specifically the vegetation composition compared to those plants that had been documented as forage for black bears by other studies from the region, such as alligator juniper, pinyon pine, various oaks, and catclaw mimosa. Their studies suggest that suitable habitat is readily available in the Davis Mountains and based on examination of the availability of black bear forage on the Davis Mountain Preserve, the most suitable habitat is in the Canyon (Mountain Savannah) ecological site. Other ecological sights such as Igneous Hill and Mountain (MS) and Mountain Loam (MS) also contained high amounts of black bear forage.

Judging by recent reported sightings in early December of this year, the Black Bear is making a significant comeback in this region of Texas and with sightings come the concern and often unease of residents in the area. However, black bears are not as dangerous as some people postulate. For one, most of their diet is vegetation, so they may pose less of a threat to livestock than many other predators, and like most animals, will seldom approach people. Although the black bear is generally passive, they can become aggressive if close enough and when the confrontation involves a cub.