Terlingua Ghost Town bear captured, relocated 

TERLINGUA — For a week and a half in November, a dumpster-diving black bear caused a ruckus in the Terlingua Ghost Town. The bear’s fans took to social media to document his escapades, and the targets of his nightly raids made panicked calls to their waste disposal companies to try to find a bear-friendly solution. 

On November 18, Texas Parks and Wildlife trapped the bear and outfitted him with tags and a radio collar before transporting him to Black Gap Wildlife Management Area just east of Big Bend National Park. The bear’s new accessories will help local wildlife researchers learn about the region’s growing bear population. 

Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD) has a tiered system for responding to human-wildlife encounters, not unlike the “code orange” or “code yellow” that dictates security measures at the airport. The first two tiers of TPWD’s system required the Ghost Town’s humans to do what they could to deter the bear through a process of “hazing” and securing their trash — when that proved unsuccessful, policy dictated that the bear be humanely captured and relocated. 

“Hazing,” in a wildlife context, refers to a practice of attempting to negatively reinforce wildlife behavior without harmful physical contact. Ghost Town residents were encouraged to make loud noises to scare off the bear, the professionals marked the bear with paintballs. Nothing seemed to work — on the night the agency decided to relocate the bear, the bear returned to the same dumpster to snack within 30 minutes of being hazed. 

Black Gap is TPWD’s designated spot for black bear relocation in the Big Bend. Wildlife diversity biologist Krysta Demere was the go-to person for Terlingua locals during the height of all the excitement about the bear. “We released him at a water source in a canyon where there’s been previous bear activity, so we’re assuming there’s natural food sources for him,” she explained. 

There have been sporadic bear sightings in south Brewster County outside of Big Bend National Park over the years, but primarily in areas that are sparsely populated — in 2017, a bear on Terlingua Ranch caused enough chaos that it was relocated to Black Gap. The Ghost Town bear was the first bear to gravitate toward the more heavily-populated areas just outside of the parks. 

Demere stressed that while the process of capturing and transporting the bear was designed to be as comfortable and safe as possible for the animal, the relocation was just a temporary fix. “We tell people that relocation isn’t always a win,” she said. “Bears have a tendency to go back to what they know.” 

In this bear’s case, that’s the fragrant dumpsters of the ghost town’s numerous eateries — he was first spotted outside of DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ. “This individual bear has already left Black Gap and is heading west toward Terlingua,” Demere explained. “DB’s barbecue — once you’ve had it, you’ve gotta go back.”

Going forward, TPWD has urged residents to implement careful waste management practices, in hopes of making the neighborhood unappealing to bears. Residents and business owners quickly started contacting their disposal companies to try to request bear-resistant lids — a request that many in the Texas dumpster trade hadn’t yet had to handle. 

Chol Kim, who serves the greater West Texas region for Texas Disposal Services, was initially surprised by all the requests for new Terlingua dumpsters. “During my tenure, we haven’t really had any issues with bears,” he said. “This is new for us, and the amount of the activity is out of the norm.” 

Kim explained that the company was going to try retrofitting the area’s dumpsters with metal lids — the current plastic lids were rolled out with cost-effectiveness in mind. They ended up being no match for the bear, who damaged several Terlingua Ghost Town dumpsters by sitting on top of them and waiting for them to cave. 

Texas Disposal Services is in the process of ordering the old-school metal lids and other parts that can be attached to the dumpsters to make them bear-resistant. “There’s a steel frame unit that goes on top of the lid so they can generally withstand some pressure,” he explained. “It’s generally more effective at keeping these guys out.” 

For Demere and her colleagues, the incident was a healthy reminder that human-bear interactions are only going to become more common as both populations grow in the region. Prevention is key. “This highlights the need for us to be proactive and have practices that allow people to coexist with black bears without having any human-bear conflict,” she said.