Oscar the dumpster-diving bear has acquired a taste for barbecue. The 338-pound male black bear was first sighted at DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ, a food trailer in the Terlingua Ghost Town, on November 6, nosing around in the dumpsters for scraps of owner Don Baucham’s popular smoked turkey. “Who can blame him?” said Krysta Demere, a bear specialist with Texas Parks and Wildlife. “DB’s got great barbecue.” Locals soon gave the bear his nickname, a nod to Oscar the Grouch, the Sesame Street muppet who lives in a trash can. But Oscar’s repeated appearances in Terlingua, the once desolate, now booming Big Bend town, was no joke to Demere and other experts who are closely monitoring an increasing number of human-bear interactions in West Texas. 

It is an exciting time to be a bear enthusiast in Texas. Once common across the state, bears were extirpated by the 1950s, the victims of overhunting and habitat loss. Three decades went by before the first female with cubs was spotted in Big Bend National Park. But in recent years the animals have been spreading across the region. Terlingua and other parts of the Big Bend are at the leading edge of bear recolonization, as the animals move north from the mountains of Mexico and across the Rio Grande in search of new habitat. “Texas is bear country, and we are happy to have bears back in Texas,” Demere said at a January meeting in Study Butte–Terlingua to educate residents on how to live with the animals. But the ursine influx poses problems. Certain individuals can become attached to human food or pet food. Such bears can be a nuisance—or worse. As the saying goes, a fed bear is a dead bear. If a problem animal can’t be scared away from humans or relocated, wildlife managers may have to euthanize it—a fairly regular occurrence in states with large bear populations.

Oscar’s appearances in Terlingua prompted wildlife officials to take action. Two days after the bear’s meal at DB’s, Demere and other TPWD personnel began “hazing” efforts, firing paintballs and shooing Oscar out of town. He returned the next day. Then the team escalated to an air horn and rubber buckshot, but the tenacious animal kept coming back, the last time just fifteen minutes after being shot with the buckshot. “That was a big wake-up call for us,” said Demere. Finally, after a week of fruitless harassment, the team trapped and sedated Oscar. They fitted him with a GPS collar and transported him two hours east to Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, one of the more remote patches of public land in the state and a designated bear-relocation site. But Oscar soon hit the road again. Six days and 35 miles later, he was back in Terlingua, where he hung around until he decided to den (hibernate) about three weeks ago. 

While the Oscar saga may seem humorous at first, it has serious import. In addition to the risk that Oscar might have to be euthanized if his dumpster diving continues, his story underscores the urgent need for better science on black bears in Texas, said Louis Harveson, director of the Borderlands Research Institute at Sul Ross State University in Alpine. Our society hasn’t lived with bears for almost seventy-five years. And so now all of a sudden we have bears walking through ATMs downtown.” Some bears have been illegally shot and killed—killing a protected animal is a Class C misdemeanor in Texas. Recently, someone was charged with shooting a bear at Terlingua Ranch. In 2020, charges were filed against someone who shot a mama bear that had wandered into a residential neighborhood in the small southwest Texas city of Del Rio, apparently attracted by cat food. The bear’s orphaned cub, nicknamed Miss Texas by her caretakers at a wildlife rehab center in New Mexico, was released in 2021 at the state-owned Devils River State Natural Area, not far from Del Rio. 

To help better understand the species and to reduce human-bear interactions, Harveson is leading a team of researchers on a multiyear study to track thirty bears across a vast swath of far West Texas, from Big Bend National Park north to the Davis Mountains and east to the Devils River corridor. An initial ten bears—nine males and one female—were collared in the fall and winter, providing the researchers with near real-time data on their movements. Harveson was surprised by how quickly the team was able to trap ten bears, a sign, perhaps, that the creatures are more abundant than previously thought. The abundance of males is “indicative of a pioneering population,” Harveson says, since male mammals are more likely to disperse in search of new territory. 

Harveson said he was also surprised by how far the bears are traveling. The female proved herself a real West Texan, casually traversing long distances. She made her way from the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area east toward Sanderson and then all the way back to the Chisos Basin, in the heart of Big Bend National Park—a distance of 128 miles in thirty days. Harveson posits that West Texas bears must be peripatetic in order to survive in an arid region where food is scarce and seasonal. But because the animals have been largely absent from the landscape for sixty-plus years, the researchers have a lot to learn. Data gathering over the next two to five years will help the Borderlands Research Institute team refine its understanding of the animals’ preferred habitats and behavioral patterns. That information will be used by wildlife managers to figure out how to manage the species and reduce contact with humans.

Harveson hopes the collar data will yield a solid estimate of the bear population in Texas. He suspects that there are at least 75 bears across the state, including small populations in deep South Texas, parts of East Texas, and the Canadian River corridor in the Panhandle. Most of these, he thinks, are itinerant animals migrating from Louisiana, Mexico, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. And he wouldn’t be surprised if there were 150 or 200. West Texas, with its largely intact habitats, sparse human population density, and food-rich sky islands, is the most promising terrain for a bear renaissance. In a sense, the bears would be coming home. The species was once so abundant that Texas newspapers in the late 1800s advertised bear meat (Christmas Ham of Wild Black Bear, anyone?), and an annual hunt in the canyon country of the Davis Mountains continued up until the 1940s. Federal mammalogist Vernon Bailey reported in his seminal 1905 biological survey of Texas that bears “hold their own surprisingly well against unusual odds” in the Davis Mountains and were “common” in the “almost inaccessible canyons” of the Guadalupe Mountains. 

“We basically lost our bears in Texas,” said Harveson. “We drove them out of the state or put them in the ground in the 1950s through persecution and so forth. And the way I look at it is the bears are really giving us a second chance. It is really rare in the conservation field to have a recolonizing population, especially a large charismatic species like black bear. And so our job is to try to make sure we do it right.”