Are Texans ready to live in bear country?

As the black bear population rises, so does their chance of conflict with people.

By Michael MarksAugust 31, 2023 10:15 am,

Terlingua is a popular spot for tourists who come to Big Bend National Park. But on a cool clear morning earlier this year, the Bad Rabbit Café at Terlingua Ranch Lodge was packed with locals – plus folks from Texas Parks and Wildlife, and law enforcement.

They’d assembled to talk about a pressing problem in the community: black bears. When they first started regularly popping up in Terlingua a few years ago, some residents were worried about safety.

“The first time we saw a bear we were concerned, and we were due to leave town and we postponed our trip for a few days because we didn’t want to leave our place unprotected,” said Scott Walker, a Terlingua resident.

They’re used to it now, though.

“We just make loud noises and they leave. Reluctantly, but they leave,” Walker said.

Courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife

Black bear sightings in Texas haven't just been limited to Big Bend National Park. Some residents have had encounters with the large mammals on their own property.

The meeting was called by Texas Parks and Wildlife to remind residents of the do’s and don’ts of living near bears, and to share the latest research about the local population.

There’s been a significant uptick in black bear activity in far West Texas over the past few years, and not just in Big Bend National Park. Many of the dumpsters in Terlingua have been swapped out for bear-proof models.

“The bears really seem to really enjoy this area,” Matt Hewitt, a researcher at the Borderlands Research Institute, based at Sul Ross State University, said. “It is kind of a human interface – it’s not-super populated by any means, but there are people here, and that means attractants. There are dumpsters, there are feeders and stuff, so I think bears are kind of taking advantage of this area.”

A bear paw print compared to the hand of a human. While smaller than a grizzly, wild male black bears can get from 50 to 80 inches long and weigh between 125 and 500 pounds, according to the North American Bear Center. Courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife

Hewitt and his colleagues are conducting a multi-year study on West Texas bears. There are lots of questions about them, such as what they eat, how far and fast they move, and what their interactions with humans are like.

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They do this by trapping bears and fitting them with a radio collar. Outside of the Bad Rabbit Café, Hewitt and his colleagues show off their trap: a big steel pipe on a trailer that’s open on one end. A door on the open end can be hoisted up and locked in place. It slams shut whenever a bear climbs inside to get at the bait. Hewitt and the team get a text whenever they catch one.

This study will be essential to better understanding how bears behave in West Texas – which is important, because they don’t seem to be going anywhere.

“You know, the reality is we’re back in the bear business,” said Louis Harveson, director of the Borderlands Research Institute. “We had bears basically in all corners of the state. They were extirpated. And slowly, but surely, they’re making their way back.”

Bears were practically extinct in Texas by the 1950s. Hunters and ranchers killed them because of their threat to livestock and for sport.

But in 1988, a hiker photographed black bear cubs in Big Bend National Park. Sightings trickled in through the 90s and 2000s, then went up dramatically after 2011.

“In Mexico, we had the huge wildfires in 2011. It was almost a million acres that burned. So for that period of time you had all these bears with nothing to eat. So we saw this huge increase in observations of bears across the Texas border, even females with cubs,” said Diana Doan-Crider, who’s spent decades studying bears in Mexico and elsewhere.

As sightings mounted, it became clear that bears had been crossing the Rio Grande, and some were staying in Texas.

The reasons for this migration are complex and not fully understood. No doubt some came north because of drought or wildfire. Others may have been looking for a place with fewer bears than the mountains of northern Mexico, where they’re populous.

Doan-Crider said that some of the female bears with cubs may have come north to avoid large numbers of grown male bears, which will occasionally kill cubs.

The Texas that these bears are entering, however, is much different than the one their ancestors may have roamed.

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It’s illegal to kill a bear in Texas now, for one.

The landscape is fragmented by fences and roads and railroad tracks.

And for bears – who are not super picky eaters – there’s a lot of food just lying around on the landscape. Game feeders are particularly popular. Hunters fill these with corn to attract deer, turkeys, and hogs, but bears like them, too.

“[Game feeders have] totally thrown everything off as far as the bear population is concerned, because now we’ve added a non-natural food source that is available to these animals almost year-round. And we have bears that are living at these deer feeders and don’t even move anywhere,” Doan-Crider said.

Other common attractants include dog food, bird seed and dumpsters.

Back in Terlingua, Ruben Burrola lives just a few yards away from the restaurant he works at: DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ. One of his jobs is to tend the pits, so he’s often outside late at night to check the fire. Burrola had done this for years and never saw a bear, until one night last fall.

“When I got [outside] I didn’t see anything. When I got close to the garbage dumpster, I saw the red eyes, and I just ran away,” he said.

At first, nobody believed that Burrola saw a bear. Then, something went through their dumpsters.

“After they started getting hit by the trash stuff, everybody was like ‘oh, he’s right,’” Burrola said.

Bears are drawn to sources of food and have been found to raid game feeders and dumpsters, in particular.

Courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife

The bear came back night after night to dig through the brisket trimmings and butcher paper. Over time it got more brazen. Once, the restaurant’s owner, Don Bauchum, was meeting with Parks and Wildlife staff about the problem.

“Matter of fact they were inside eating, and one of my employees was going to go out to the dumpster and said ‘hey there’s the bear.’ So everybody runs outside, and I think they chased him up the hill here and the deputy hit him with a few rubber slugs. Which didn’t do anything – they were back the next day,” said Bauchum.

Bauchum eventually ordered some bear-proof dumpsters, with a steel bar that locks over the lids.

“Unless he’s got a key or can chew through metal, we’re going to be alright,” he said.

The bear was eventually caught and taken to Black Gap Wildlife Management Area. This kind of story will likely become more common in Texas.

“We have to prepare the communities. We have to make sure that [people in] Alpine and Marfa and Sanderson and Del Rio know how to store their trash,” Harveson said.

Black bear attacks are rare, but bears are more dangerous if they get used to humans or their food. Texas Parks and Wildlife records show bears are already getting caught up in places meant for people.

In June of 2020, a bear was walking down a residential street in Alpine and decided to hole up under a carport. Law enforcement scared it away by shooting bean bags, and the bear ran away safely.

Other encounters have ended in violence, though. In October 2020, there was a female bear with a cub in a neighborhood in Del Rio. They were out scavenging – maybe for food left out for local feral cats – until a resident shot and killed the adult female.

» RELATED: What to do if you see a black bear while camping over the holiday

That kind of outcome can be avoided, according to Doan-Crider.

Black bear attacks are rare, but the danger increases the more bears get used to humans and their food. One expert says securing such sources of food so that they are inaccessible to bears could do away with a great deal of encounters. Image courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife

“We could avoid 80 percent of the problems with bears if people right off the bat would start putting their garbage in bear-proof containers. They start keeping their dog food put up. Like, don’t leave those temptations out,” she said.

Doan-Crider believes that neither Texans nor state regulators are prepared for more bears.

It’s not far-fetched to imagine them spreading beyond West Texas. There’s suitable black bear habitat throughout the state, and Texas is surrounded by areas in which they already live.

Demographic trends in Texas could also help black bears spread. Over time, many of the state’s large tracts of land have been broken into into smaller and smaller subdivisions.

“Now it’s full of people, and those people have garbage cans, they have swimming pools, which is also an attractant. Water’s an attractant during drought,” Doan-Crider said.

The best thing people can do to prepare is to securely store anything that might attract a bear. It wouldn’t hurt to get into the practice, wherever you live in Texas.

Even if it’s not bear country now, one day it might be.

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