Bear With Me

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

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

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