Bear takes up residence in Terlingua Ghost Town

An ursine burglar has targeted DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ in the Terlingua Ghost Town over the past two weeks. Photo courtesy of Don Baucham.

TERLINGUA — Over the past two weeks, Terlingua’s newest resident has been the talk of the town, causing controversy and leaving a mess in the streets. A male black bear — or two, depending on who you ask — has been snacking on trash in the Ghost Town, prompting a heated conversation about how humans and bears can coexist as both populations grow in the Big Bend.

Don Baucham of DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ was the first to document the bear. He and his team typically put meat on the smoker late at night and return in the morning to prep for lunch service. Around 9 a.m. on November 7, the crew spotted the bear feasting from the dumpster. “He was just helping himself,” Baucham said. “My employees were scared — they didn’t know what to do.” 

Baucham reported the sighting to Texas Parks and Wildlife and the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office, which recommended making a ruckus to scare him off. Nothing seemed to work. The bear returned daily, either at dawn or dusk, scattering garbage in his wake — then signing his crime with a steaming pile of scat. “They eat, then they’re done. For some reason they leave a nice surprise every time,” he said.

One night, a deputy was driving by DB’s and intercepted the bear during his nightly buffet. “We caught him red-handed,” Baucham said. The bear resisted arrest, and the deputy fired off a round of rubber bullets toward the non-compliant perp. The thick-skinned burglar was unbothered — he stuck around to serve himself seconds. 

The Ghost Town bear likely comes from a long line of tenacious Big Bend residents. As the region was settled by farmers and ranchers in the early 20th century, the black bear population was hunted out of Texas and pushed south of the border. For almost 40 years, there were no bear sightings on this side of the river. 

That changed in the late ‘80s, when tourists and park employees started reporting a female with cubs in the Chisos Mountains. Nobody knows exactly when or how, but the bears crossed the border and happily started repopulating themselves in Big Bend National Park. The Chisos bears are a rare — and near-miraculous — conservation biology case study. 

Since then, there have been numerous sightings of bears north of the park. Bears have been spotted in the Christmas Mountains and on the security camera of an ATM in Alpine. Back in June, a black bear was hit on I-20 in Reeves County. Some experts believe that the bear population has reached maximum capacity in the Chisos and some of them have had to move beyond the park to find the resources they need. 

The main problem with the bears starting to repopulate their historic homelands is that there are now thousands of people living in the Trans-Pecos. When the bears disappeared from Texas, the Ghost Town was a real ghost town — these days, it’s a bustling tourist hub.

Locals have been tracking this bear’s path on social media. He’s been spotted behind the Tolbert cookoff grounds and across the highway at Desert Sports; he’s ransacked the dumpsters at Taqueria El Milagro. A tourist eating lunch on the patio at the High Sierra watched him stroll toward Kempf Road — later that day, someone posted a photo of the bear traipsing through the tipis at Basecamp Terlingua.

This bear doesn’t seem to mind being the center of attention. He showed up during one of the Ghost Town’s peak visitation seasons, at the tail end of the twin chili cookoffs and Día de los Muertos and just before the crowded Thanksgiving weekend.

Cigar Springs Ranch owner-operator Jeff Majewski has a theory that the Terlingua bear is so bold because he migrated out of the Chisos. Bears in Big Bend National Park are exposed to people from a young age who are legally prohibited from hunting or harassing them. “They’re park bears,” he said. “They have no reason to fear people.” 

In the past two weeks, Majewski has had his own close encounters with a bear — which he thinks is distinct from the Ghost Town bear. His bear, he insists, is chubbier and younger than the one photographed a few miles up the road.

A bear hops the fence at Cigar Springs Ranch, home of the Terlingua Goat Pens. Photo courtesy of Jeff Majewski.

One day he came home from the store to find the bear drinking out of his goats’ water trough. He saw that the bear had also left a claw puncture in a stainless steel feed bucket. Flustered, Majewski attempted to scare it away. “I was trying to find a rock — it was the first time I couldn’t find a rock in the stinkin’ desert,” he said. 

The next time the bear came to visit, Majewski was about to let out his goats when he found them all huddled by the gate in a panic — the bear had posted up in a corner of their pen. After a heated exchange, the bear fled the scene by gracefully hoisting himself up and over a nine-foot fence post.

Majewski — who has lived at Cigar Springs off and on since the late ‘80s — has had plenty of tussles with mountain lions, but never with a bear. His animals aren’t pleased with their new neighbor. “It’s like when a lion comes around and there’s that eerie quietness,” he said. “You’ll be sitting outside looking at the moon and the chickens and goats that make little noises just go silent.” 

Back in the Ghost Town, longtime resident and guesthouse owner Betty Moore has watched her tranquil corner of the neighborhood become ground zero for the war on bears. Both Brewster County Sheriff’s Office and Texas Parks and Wildlife vehicles have camped out on her road, cruising back and forth all night. “I’ll be watching TV and the searchlights keep coming in through my window,” she said. “I tell you, it’s like the Keystone Cops.”

Moore remembers first hearing about the bear on the new pickleball court down by the Boathouse. Around the same time that Baucham snapped the first picture of the bear, legendary local musician Butch Hancock stopped by the court. “He told us to keep an eye out,” she said. “That was the first time I heard about it.”

The situation has escalated dramatically over the past week and a half. A friend of one of Moore’s tenants spotted a deputy chasing the bear down the road, and soon after the bear left a crime scene at her dumpster. On Monday night, shots rang out. “I don’t know if it was a blank or a rubber bullet, but it was a loud shot,” she said. “I watched this one guy take off running as fast as he could, and then the truck came around after them — it all lasted for quite awhile.” 

Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD) wildlife diversity biologist Krysta Demere has been distributing business cards around town. She’s been the go-to public liaison for folks who want to report sightings. 

Demere explained that the shots fired by TPWD in the Ghost Town are paintballs and don’t harm the bears. The paintballs are part of a process called “hazing.” Animal hazing isn’t the same hazing making headlines at your local frat house — it’s the technical term for providing negative behavioral conditioning to wildlife who have put themselves in dangerous situations. 

The paintballs establish physical contact with the bear without authorities having to get too close. “It just means you make the situation uncomfortable,” Demere explained. 

She encouraged locals to take a two-pronged approach: by storing and securing their trash as carefully as possible and by shouting, clapping or banging pots and pans — anything to teach the bear to associate human smells with scary noises. 

The paintballs are an enhanced level of hazing that should only be carried out by professionals. They serve the dual purpose of startling the bear and marking the animal to officially determine if there’s more than one roaming the area. As of Monday night, the Ghost Town bear has been successfully marked. “We didn’t intend to do a rainbow on the bear, but the bear is currently a mixture of green, yellow and blue,” Demere said. 

Moore doesn’t think hazing alone will solve the problem. She’s had plenty of experience with the practice in her former life as a field biologist. Once upon a time, she was tasked with hazing condors who had become fond of attacking tourists’ shoelaces in the Grand Canyon. Some onlookers were alarmed by her methods, which mostly involved throwing rocks — she had to explain that the rock-throwing was sanctioned by science.

When the bear came to visit Moore’s dumpster, she noticed that the plastic lid had been caved in. Apparently, the bear had climbed on top of the dumpster and used his weight to access — and roll around in — that night’s dinner. “I think the solution to our problem is the dumpsters,” she said.  “As long as food is available, it’s going to keep coming back. It’s only a matter of time before it finds the Starlight.”

Because Terlingua is unincorporated, locals have to contract with private disposal companies to install and collect trash from dumpsters on their properties. There are currently two disposal companies that serve Terlingua: Texas Disposal Systems and Republic Services. Moore contacted Republic Services to request a bear-safe dumpster. “Unfortunately, metal lids and bear-proof lids are currently not offered in your area,” Republic’s customer service team wrote back. 

Brewster County Precinct 2 Commissioner Sara Allen Colando posted on Instagram about her own experience trying to negotiate for new dumpster lids — she reached out to Republic and got a different response. “The only negative is we are very limited to the metal lid containers,” Lisa Gonzalez at Republic Services wrote. “But please have [your constituents] call me and I can definitely see how I can help.” (Republic Services did not return a request for comment by press time).

Baucham — whose barbecue-filled dumpsters are particularly fragrant — has been leading a similar charge among Texas Disposal Services customers. He’s asked company reps to order metal dumpster lids for Terlingua, and has encouraged business owners around the Ghost Town to do the same. “The more businesses they hear from, the better chance we’ll get them,” he said. 

In the meantime, what’s next for the Ghost Town bear? Some locals worry about what will happen if the hazing doesn’t work — “a fed bear is a dead bear,” goes the old Park Service adage. Others worry scrappy Terlingua locals will exercise frontier justice. “Hunting season is just around the corner,” an anonymous op-ed in the Terlingua Moon pleaded. “You know someone will shoot this bear.” 

Moore echoed their concerns. She also believed some of the difficulty in tracking the bear is that he blends into the dark Terlingua nights. “I’m just afraid someone’s going to hit him with a car,” she said.

Demere wanted to reassure the public that the bear would not be harmed by TPWD at any step in the process. The agency has a tiered threat-level system — if the hazing is unsuccessful, policy dictates that the bear should be relocated. If authorities agree that’s the best plan of action, he’ll be humanely trapped and dropped off at Black Gap Wildlife Management Area just east of the national park. “We’ll be making sure the individual is as comfortable as possible on his road trip,” she said. 

She also noted that the bear has not exhibited any threatening behavior toward humans or other animals. That’s especially important in a dog haven like Terlingua — Demere said that there could be a negative interaction if a dog were to corner a bear, but so far this bear hasn’t seemed interested in the town’s free-roaming canines. 

Demere thinks many people in the region will eventually have to adopt bear-safe lifestyles. “It takes a community to come together and become bear-wise,” she said. “As the black bear population repopulates their historic range, we need to start putting these habits into practice.”

Moore agreed. In her 39 years living among the ruins, she’s never seen a bear in her neighborhood — but didn’t think this one would be the last. Both the bear and the tourist populations have ballooned beyond her cohort’s wildest predictions. “I don’t think any of us ever expected that Terlingua Ghost Town would have a problem,” she said. “But I really think this is just the beginning.”

A guide to bear hazing and bear-safe waste disposal for the general public is available online at Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Trans-Pecos District Facebook page. To report sightings of the bear, please contact Texas Parks and Wildlife at (432) 837-2051.

A typical crime scene at the Rustic Iron BBQ dumpsters. Photo courtesy of Don Baucham.