A bull market in the bear population in Big Bend National Park

By Marlys Hersey, Editor

The black bear population Big Bend National Park appears to be thriving again, despite the stressful conditions of 2011, including drought and intense wildfires.

Visitors to park made many sightings of bears this spring. “We may have as many as four mama bears with cubs,” confirmed Park Biologist Raymond Skiles—three sets in the Chisos Mountains, and one about a mile from Panther Junction. “We’re definitely on an upswing.”

One of the more high-profile bear sightings in late April involved a sow and her four cubs crossing the road near the Lost Mine trailhead, near the Basin of the Chisos Mountains. People taking photos and clamoring to get better views of the bruins caused a “bear jam” of cars and people on the road. As a result, one of the cubs got left behind, on the other side of the road from his mother and siblings.

That’s when Skiles got involved: “I put on new gloves… the thing was small enough that you could literally grab it and drag it across the hill” in hopes it would be able to reunite with its family.

There have been several more sightings of black bears in the park, and what’s more, says Skiles, “They seem healthy, robust—especially just coming out of dens” after winter dormancy.

This is a far cry from what was anticipated for the black bear population in the park, given the severe drought of 2011. Skiles recalls hiking in the Chisos the past couple of years and noting the destitute conditions of much of the vegetation on which the bears depend; the piñon pines had few pine nuts, the madrone few berries, the oaks few acorns. Even the prickly pear and stool and yucca were hurting. Plus, most of the mountain pools and springs were dry. The last time conditions were similar, back in 2000, according to Skiles, there was a 50 percent drop in the bear population the following year.

“I was very surprised,” said Skiles about the bear’s apparent healthiness this year. “They must know something we don’t about where to find food.”

While seeing a bear—especially a mother and her cubs—may be a great thrill for many park visitors and employees alike, the Park Service is quick to point out the dangers of bears becoming “habituated,” or “pretty familiar” with humans, to the point where instead of avoiding people, they may gravitate to areas where people are, in order to find easy sources of food. Once the bears lose their fear of humans, they may become aggressive, possibly resulting in the bear being relocated or killed to prevent injury to people in the area.

While Big Bend National Park has clearly defined protocols for the prevention of bear habituation, stressful years bring out new behaviors in desperate bears, and plans need to be consistently revised.

December of 2011 marked the first time the Park Service deemed it necessary to relocate a bear within this park. “It broke into trash, recycling, and then a concession dorm,” notes Skiles. “We trapped it…and moved it [from the Basin] to a point on River Road, where it might have a chance to survive. That’s what we don’t want to happen again.”

Consequently, the park service revaluated “how we do things in the Basin.” As a result, the concession, Forever Resorts, upgraded its recycling containers and made some repairs on other facilities.

Education about preventing bear habituation is a “heavy message” conveyed to park employees and residents alike. “Things as mundane as dog food and water in backyards” are no longer allowed, cites Skiles. Hummingbird and grain bird feeders are no longer permitted, either, at least not for employees living in the Basin.

While Skiles notes that such a stressful year as 2011 “pushes bears to test us to extremes,” he concedes it also tests us humans: residents saw animals in desperation, and set up watering stations for them. There are suspicions some were putting out food for the bears.

“In stress years, bears get smart and try new things,” explained Skiles. We’ve done a good job, but we must remain vigilant. This park still is exemplary among bear parks. But that’s not good enough. We have to be ready to constantly respond and amend our programs.”

Another stressor on the bears in the region were the wildfires of 2011: two and a half million acres burned, just south of the border, in the mountain ranges between Big Bend National Park and the city of Músquiz, Coahuila, Mexico, some prime bear habitat. As a result, bears displaced from their home range there were seen up and down the Rio Grande, and in the desert. Explains Skiles. “Across the black bear range in North America, it’s unprecedented that a female with cubs would be on a trek.”

Though the park biologist believes that the resident population of bears in the Chisos Mountains remains somewhat steady over time—estimating its current number, based on sightings and cameras, to be approximately twenty—he is wary of becoming complacent about the bears who live in the park, given that the “small, suitable habitat of the Chisos is very susceptible to climatic changes. This is going to be a dynamic population. We’re probably mid-way in a rollercoaster ride right now, and it could go either way. Them being here is good: our goal is to keep them here.”

For more information about the black bears in Big Bend National Park, visit: http://www.nps.gov/bibe/naturescience/bears.htm.

Adult female bear seen with cubs at the Lost Mine trailhead in the fall of 2011; despite the drought of 2011, this year, the black bear population emerging from winter dormancy in the park appears “robust and healthy.” (BBG file photo by John Waters.)

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