Bear With Me

Black bears have returned to Big Bend National Park, and our author is determined to find one.

December 1991By Comments

The first clue that nature had given us a second chance appeared on the steep, winding road up to the Chisos Mountains basin and the lodge where we intended to spend the night. Our headlights flashed across a black-on-yellow bear-crossing sign. After an absence of more than fifty years, the Mexican black bear is once again a resident of Big Bend National Park. Drive with care.

It was late September. A Comanche moon dominated the vast night sky, and the Chisos Mountains seemed to jut out of the high desert like the jaws of hell. It was scary and wonderful driving into the park at night, overpowering, the way this country always is, especially when you haven’t seen it for a while. The spirit of the Apache chief Baja del Sol, assassinated by his own people, is said to walk this range, and when the mountains swallow you up, there is a feeling that you have passed into another time. With a few exceptions, this is how the Trans-Pecos looked before the first settlers arrived. We had come looking for one of those exceptions—the black bear.

The bear population is still tiny, somewhere between six and eight, wandering randomly in a national park that covers more than 800,000 acres. But actually spotting one isn’t as difficult as those figures suggest. Bears favor the moist canyons and cool slopes above 3,500 feet. For most of the year, the most attractive habitat for both man and bear is the Chisos range, that jagged mass of igneous rock that swells up from ancient seabeds and towers above everything else in the park. In fact, the easiest way to look for bears is to drive slowly along the seven-mile stretch of road leading up to the basin, through a thickly vegetated canyon called Green Gulch. Most of the bear sightings have been either along this road or on the nearby trails.

“Bears are accustomed to cars passing along the road,” says Rick LoBello, the executive director of the Big Bend Natural History Association. “It’s easier to get close to one in a car than it is on foot.”

LoBello photographed a sow (as female bears are called) and two cubs in June 1990 while they napped about two hundred yards off the basin road. The bears had been spotted by a park ranger, who alerted the park dispatcher, who alerted LoBello. By the time LoBello arrived, there was a traffic jam on the basin road, as visitors with telephoto lenses and binoculars stopped to gawk at the three furry clumps. The cubs were sleeping in the branches of a piñon, but they woke presently, skidded down the tree, and nudged their dozing mother, who obligingly rolled over so that the cubs could nurse. The bears lingered near the tree for about two hours, then moved to a cooler, shadier spot higher up.

The sighting was a landmark event, partly because so many people saw and photographed the bears, but also because it confirmed that the black bear was indeed once again a resident of the park. There had always been a few vagrant bears, usually males who wandered down from the Sierra del Carmen on the Mexican side of the border. In times of drought or when there were fires in the high country of northern Mexico, people would spot bears in the Chisos or the Deadhorse Mountains, which run along the park’s eastern edge. From 1944 to 1987, there was an average of 3 sightings a year. But in 1988, the figure jumped to a record 21 confirmed sightings. The following year the number was 29. As of September, there have been more than 60 sightings this year, 25 in July alone. The sow and cubs that LoBello photographed were seen numerous times. In July 1989, a family from Belgium had reported seeing the same mother bear with not two but three cubs. The cubs were described as toylike, each about one foot long. No one knows what happened to the third cub, but their ages were a sure indication that they had been born in the park. Cubs that young couldn’t have traveled from Mexico.

One hundred years ago black bears were common—not only in the Big Bend but throughout Texas, except for the extreme southern portion of the state. The Mexican wolf, the bighorn sheep, and the mountain lion were also common in the Big Bend but, like the bear, were threatened by the advance of civilization. With the coming of the railroad through Alpine and Marfa in the 1880’s, the land that is now Big Bend National Park became cattle country. In his book Texas’ Big Bend Country, author George Wuerthner notes that the G-4 Ranch, which covered the western part of what is now the park, ran an estimated 30,000 head of cattle in 1891, and that was only a small portion of the animals grazing Big Bend rangelands.

In those days even the lower elevations blossomed and bloomed with lush profusion. Waist-high tobasa grass used to cover Tornillo Flat—homesteaders harvested and baled it for hay. Today Tornillo Flat is one of the ugliest parts of the park, a barren desert of deep arroyos, dried-up springs, and a few creosote bushes. An army expedition in 1860 reported that the grass along Terlingua Creek was stirrup-high and described the creek as a “bold running stream, studded with cottonwood timber and alive with beaver.” These days, the stream is more timid than bold, and repeated browsing of cattle, sheep, and goats on the seedlings and sprouts has resulted in the near-elimination of the cottonwood.

Big Bend rangeland was already badly overgrazed by 1933, when the Texas Legislature began setting aside land to give to the federal government as a park. Resident ranchers fought the park idea like panthers, and when it was apparent that they had lost, they proved to be astonishingly sore losers. Between 1942—when the park boundaries were actually drawn—and 1944—when the park officially opened—ranchers indulged in one final bender of overgrazing that nearly did in the range for good.

Ranchers, hunters, and trappers also played hell with the fauna. By the time the park opened, the bear was no longer a resident species, having been hunted and starved until none were left. Bighorn sheep had died off too, thanks to diseases brought in by domestic sheep, and the golden eagle population dwindled, too—shooting the birds from airplanes used to be considered sport in this part of Texas. The lion, a resilient carnivore able to travel long distances, didn’t disappear completely, though sightings were extremely rare. The most vicious extermination effort was a government-sponsored program to eradicate the Mexican wolf. Wolves were shot, crushed in steel traps, or poisoned with strychnine-laced bait. The last two wolves reported in Texas were killed in 1970. Today there are fewer than 35 Mexican wolves in existence, all of them in zoos or wildlife-management centers.

In one of those dazzling ironies possible only where bureaucracies flourish, the federal government has now declared the wolf an endangered species and is funding a program to reintroduce it to the American wilderness. Big Bend National Park isn’t currently on the list of sites scheduled to receive wolves, but a group in Richardson that calls itself the Mexican Wolf Coalition is urging such a program, apparently with the support of Governor Ann Richards. Ranchers and landowners are vehemently opposed, of course, and the reintroduction of the wolf has become a polarizing issue in Brewster County. But in the years since bears and wolves vanished, Brewster County has evolved into something quite different: The southern half of the county is now more dependent on tourism than on ranching.

When we traveled to the park in September, we knew that the odds were long against actually seeing a bear, but just knowing that it was a possibility made the search worthwhile. Monsoonlike rains had pelted the Big Bend for several weeks before we arrived. Normally, the best time to see a bear is early morning or late afternoon, when the weather is most pleasant and the animals are moving about hunting for food. But the rains had cooled the desert and assured such an abundance of succulent plants that a bear wouldn’t have to travel more than a few feet to find board and bed. Vegetation was so thick we could have stepped on a bear before seeing it.

The first afternoon, we hiked up Lost Mine Trail, a narrow switchback path that starts at the basin road and zigzags up a steep incline for 2.3 miles. At an altitude well above five thousand feet, it is a difficult climb, but there are a number of resting places, most of them with views of the cloud-covered peaks or deep green canyons, all of them shaded by a variety of juniper, oak, and pine trees. From the rocky summit at the end of the trail is a spectacular view across Pine Canyon to Lost Mine Peak. We didn’t spot any bear along the trail, but we did see a pile of bear scat, as it is called in scientific circles. The excrement, which we identified with the aid of a book purchased at park headquarters, was the size and shape of a small sausage and had been deposited on a flat rock beside the trail. The bear had recently digested a meal of piñon nuts, acorns, juniper berries, and some sort of purplish fruit.

Of all of the amazing things that a visitor notes about Big Bend National Park, the most astonishing is the constant juxtaposition of desert and mountains. The Chisos range is a temperate island surrounded by the vast Chihuahuan Desert: Rainfall in the park varies from about 5 inches a year near the river to as much as 25 inches in the high country. The diverse nature of the park became particularly apparent when we moved on into Pine Canyon.

To reach the canyon trail, we drove up a primitive road on the back side of Casa Grande, the enormous plume of rock that is the park’s most apparent feature. The road was hot and dusty, and it snaked through a stark landscape of sotol stalks, ocotillo, and occasional blooming lechuguilla and century plants to a clearing wide enough to park. From there we started out on foot up a steadily ascending trail, breathing hard and stopping frequently for water, a blinding sun in our eyes. After we had walked for about an hour, the trail narrowed into a heavily wooded canyon. At a still higher elevation, the temperature seemed to drop about fifteen degrees as the canyon walls swallowed up the afternoon. Through the crimson-edged leaves of bigtooth maples, sunlight dappled the trail, which was damp now and sometimes hard to detect in the shadows. Through the high branches of an enormous ponderosa pine, an acorn woodpecker carried some sort of strange grasshopper, shiny black with yellow trim, to her nest. At the head of the canyon, a spectacular waterfall plunged down a two-hundred-foot cliff. We sat for a while near the base of the fall, resting and talking about what to do next. We suspected that there were bears in this canyon—we had seen claw marks along the trail, scratched in the smooth cream-colored bark of a Texas madrone tree—and it was possible that a bear or two was hiding at that very moment in one of the dark-mouthed caves just above us on the canyon wall. But nobody volunteered to climb up and take a look.

In two and a half days of hiking and driving, we saw bear scat and claw marks, but the pesky animal itself eluded us. Our chances of seeing a bear, as it turned out, were better than the chance of a bear seeing us: Bears have notoriously poor eyesight but excellent senses of smell and hearing. Though the black bear is classified as a carnivore, it will eat almost anything, including grass, insects, rodents, fish, and garbage. A grown bear isn’t much taller than a St. Bernard—about 25 inches at the shoulders—but it can weigh up to three hundred pounds and is surprisingly fleet-footed. Unlike the bad-tempered grizzly, of which there are none in this part of the U.S., the black bear is unlikely to attack a person, the exception being a sow that believes her cubs are in danger. In the winter, bears look for windfalls—a boulder or a tree base will do—to make a den, and cubs are usually born in January or February, while the sow sleeps. By the time the new mother is ready to leave her den, the cubs are strong enough to follow. They will stay with her for about two years, then strike out on their own.

After 45 years of park protection and the elimination of grazing, the Chisos Mountains are today probably a more suitable habitat for bear than they were in the thirties. Nevertheless, it is comforting to realize that the bear returned without any additional help from mankind. This is a tribute to what park superintendent Rob Arnberger calls the Mexican connection. “It’s important that we have a reserve of bears to our south,” says Arnberger, who hopes that publicity generated by the bears’ return will revive interest in a sister park across the border in Mexico. Opening a sister park (apparently the idea of an international park is dead) has been discussed—and delayed—for years, in part because the Sierra del Carmen range is privately owned, and the Mexican government has shown no inclination to buy it.

The return of the Mexican black bear reminds us that Texas has been given a rare opportunity, one that isn’t likely to come our way again. The Big Bend is one of our most important wildlife areas, one of the few places in the state to preserve a complement of the wildlife that was here when the first settlers arrived. The park has a resident population of about two dozen mountain lions, the maximum it can sustain. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is studying plans to reintroduce the bighorn sheep to the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, just beyond the park’s eastern border. The two bear cubs who created all the excitement in the summer of 1990 have left their mother and are traveling separately, and there is at least one other sow with a cub and maybe one or two more adult bears in the park.

The female who now seems destined to be the mother of the park’s resurgent population may have already bred again. The park has scheduled a seminar on black bears, taught by Eric Hellgren of Texas A&I University, on April 30 (registration deadline is March 30), by which time there may be several new toylike cubs in residence.

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