Q: I’m hearing that bears are making a comeback in various parts of Texas. Have you ever encountered a bear in the wild? And as far as potential threats go, where do bear rank among, say, mountain lions and rattlesnakes and the like? What should I do if I run into a bear?
Janelle Witten, Midland
A: Though the Texanist was born and bred in what is now the fifty-second-largest city in the state, Temple, and currently maintains a permanent address in the state’s fourth-largest metropolis, Austin, he considers himself a confirmed outdoorsman, having spent a great deal of time outside. As such, he’s quite familiar with the many wild hazards that surround us here in Texas. And the Texanist is here to tell you that the familiar old saying, the one that goes something like, “If it doesn’t bite, stick, or sting you, it’s probably a rock,” is as true as the day is long.
The Texanist figures that over the course of the many years he has spent in this rough and tumble land, he has been on the receiving end of bites, sticks, and stings from just about every ornery creature ever to call Texas home. Or at least had run-ins with most of them. Or, at a minimum, passing encounters. Indeed, if memory serves, he has in his lifetime run afoul of, or come across in one way or another, black widows, red wasps, yellowjackets, brown recluses, green gators, funky feral hogs, brutish bulls, prickly porcupines, steely-eyed sharks, stealthy stingrays, gelatinous jellyfish, sneaky scorpions, smelly skunks, buzzing bees, slithering snakes (including rattlesnakes), coy coyotes, bawling bobcats, bloodthirsty bats (yes, crackerjack chiropterologists, the Texanist knows, but he’s on a roll here), pissed off peccaries, bossy badgers, and pallid possums. And, on occasions too numerous to count, rowdy rednecks who, after a little bottle-raising, become rowdier still. And once, while camping in South Texas many, many years ago, quite possibly a chill-inducing chupacabra.
The Texanist, though, has never run into a bear in the wilds of Texas. And the reason is fairly simple: bears are a whole lot less common in these parts than any of the aforementioned beasts, save for the chupacabra, who is quite the elusive character.
Now, this was not always the case. Texas used to be fairly lousy with bear. In particular Ursus americanus, the American black bear. Two subspecies, Mexican black bear (Ursus americanus eremicus) and New Mexican black bear (Ursus americanus amblyceps) have long been known to inhabit areas of West Texas. And the historical range of Ursus americanus luteolus, or Louisiana black bear, includes portions of East Texas, though that bear hasn’t been seen in those parts for some time. (Interestingly, only one solitary specimen of Texas grizzly bear [Ursus horraeus texensis] has ever been spotted, and it was killed during a 1900 hunting expedition outside of Fort Davis. Its skull resides today in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., due to its status as a one-of-a-kind specimen—though some believe that the bear was simply a Sonoran bear that wandered far afield from its Mexican home.)
But while bear, excluding Texas grizzly bears, used to be quite abundant in Texas, roaming the entire state, they were all but extirpated, due mostly to hunting, by the middle of the last century, maybe earlier, and are now present in only a handful of counties. But sometime in or around the late 1980s bears began to reappear in West Texas, and then eventually in northeast Texas, too. The West Texas bears likely came from Mexico and the northeast Texas bears likely came from Arkansas, which, since the late 1950s, has made concerted efforts to reintroduce bear. Today there are thought to be some five thousand bears roaming the Natural State, and it seems plausible that some of them, oblivious of the dotted line that demarcates our state borders, have wandered into Texas.
Even considering the recent uptick, though, the Texanist’s friends at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department tell him that there are likely less than a thousand bear in the entire state, possibly just a few hundred. So, taking the math into account, the chances of running into a bear in Texas are pretty low, especially outside of far West Texas. And even if you were to do so, the likelihood of the encounter getting messy is even lower.
When the Texanist asked the folks at TPWD about bear encounters that had gone wrong, they mentioned only one instance, which took place in 1934 and involved a three-year-old black bear that had been captured as a cub and turned into a Crockett County gas station sideshow attraction that eventually killed its keeper. According to wiseaboutbears.org, there have been only 67 fatalities at the hands, er, paws of black bears across all of North America since 1900. When the Texanist asked TPWD to describe a typical encounter with a bear, they put it this way: “The typical encounter involves a person seeing a bear and the bear running away.” But in the rare event that you do find yourself face to face with a bear, the experts advise talking to it in a calm manner while backing away and avoiding direct eye contact. Don’t run. If the bear does approach you, though, attempt to make yourself appear larger by raising your hands and holding something like a jacket or backpack, and yell at the bear. In the even rarer event that things turn ugly and the bear attacks, you are advised to fight back aggressively, employing rocks or sticks or whatever else is at hand. Carrying pepper spray is a good idea; a shot of that will usually do the trick.
It’s a similar situation with mountain lions. TPWD reports that in the last forty years there have been only four attacks on humans, none of them fatal, and all of which occurred in remote areas of West Texas. The expert advice regarding a close encounter with a mountain lion is much the same as it is for bears, except for the eye contact, which you are encouraged to maintain.
Rattlesnakes, along with our three other venomous snake species, are much more prevalent, making a run-in with them much more likely. Last year some 1,300 venomous snake bites were reported across the state, but as TPWD points out, almost none of them were fatal; more folks die of lightning strikes in a typical year.
So what is the Texanist’s risk-assessment ranking of these three terror-inducing animals? The Texanist would put rattlesnakes at the top, followed by mountain lions and then bears, while also emphasizing that a fear of any of these animals should not discourage you from enjoying the great outdoors as much as you can. Even so, the Texanist always advises alertness when crossing the path of a wild critter. Especially if that critter happens to be a sauced and surly specimen of the all-too-common Redneckisus texensis.
Thanks for the letter and stay safe out there.
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.