There was recently a video circulating on Twitter that can only be described as shockingly cute.
Made viral by the Austin-based science communicator Joe Hanson, the clip shows two black bear cubs wrestling on the patio of the Chisos Mountains Lodge at Big Bend National Park, teetering like toddlers covered in fur. The camera pans to reveal their mother, staring into the distance with what looks like an apathetic glare. And as if that wasn’t enough, the camera captures a third cub sitting in a bucket.
It’s the exact formula of stupid-cuteness that’s ripe for internet virality at any time. People in the video’s comments were quick to graft human qualities onto the family of wild bears: “Parent definitely has that ‘what time is too early to drink’ look.” Others connected it explicitly to the pandemic: “Seems the world gets along quite well without us.” Hanson, too, deemed this interaction a positive side effect of stay-at-home orders:
One of the greatest things that has happened as a result of this pandemic is these black bears wrasslin' on the patio of Big Bend National Park basin lodge because all the humans are gone pic.twitter.com/rWkqqzjN1b— Joe Hanson (@DrJoeHanson) June 28, 2020
It’s tempting to file this video away as yet another “nature is healing” pandemic meme—part of a crowded genre that includes goats roaming the streets in Wales, penguins strolling through Cape Town, and boars crossing formerly busy roads in Barcelona. But that narrative oversimplifies a more nuanced reality. For years, black bears in Texas have been making a slow but steady comeback, one that has nothing to do with the coronavirus.
In fact, Big Bend had more visitors than normal last month, says park ranger Adam Prato. About two hundred cars per day, or roughly 450 people, came to the park in June—a 25 percent increase over June 2019. (The park has been closed since July 2, because of a resident testing positive for the virus.) As Texas Highways reported, the bears might be a bit bolder this summer after rangers spent less time scaring them off, or “hazing,” while the park was closed in April and May. On the other hand, as retired Big Bend wildlife biologist Raymond Skiles points out, the more people who picnic on the lodge patio, the more likely bears are to drop by.
“I had mixed reactions to that video,” Skiles says. “I had to intercept that patio many times, running bears off, because the human use of that area created attractions that could cause them to get habituated. And a couple times we did have to remove bears in that complex.”
After overhunting and the encroachment of ranching all but eliminated black bears from Big Bend in the forties, their population in the region has now rebounded to its highest in recent memory. Bears slowly began returning to the park in the eighties, genetically tagged as coming from Northern Mexico. Today, there are about three dozen black bears in the Chisos Mountains, says Skiles. With park attendance in a given year nearing 400,000, these bears have slowly adapted to their human counterparts.
The transnational area sandwiched between the Davis Mountains to the north of the park and the Serranias del Burro in Mexico makes up a single region for bears and other species, says Diana Doan-Crider, an ecologist at Texas A&M University. The Rio Grande, a decidedly political border for us, hardly operates in the same way for these animals. Climate change is one reason for the bears’ return. In the bone-dry Trans-Pecos region, increasingly severe and frequent droughts can shape a bear’s migratory pattern. A year with below-average rainfall can have disastrous effects for a bear population in Northern Mexico, and in turn, cause a year of above-average bear sightings in the U.S.
But one transient male in search of food does not make a sustainable population. It was the opportune migration of a female, a necessary step for local reproduction, that solidified the bear’s status in Big Bend.
Nor is this process limited to Big Bend. While West Texas remains the state’s only active bear breeding grounds, black bears have recently been spotted across the state, from the Panhandle to the Rio Grande Valley.
East Texas is perhaps the next place to watch for black bears, thanks in large part to their successful reestablishment in the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas and Oklahoma. Arkansas has been especially proactive in its quest for bear reintroduction. The state imported some 250 bears from Minnesota and Manitoba, Canada, between 1958 and 1968, after its populations were decimated. Now there are some three thousand black bears in Arkansas.
This has brought spillover into East Texas as bears follow the path of the Red River west. Since April of this year, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) has reported at least seven bear sightings. TPWD identified these animals as young transient males seeking to establish a new home range and find a female mate. While a female has yet to be spotted among the bunch, the population is growing, according to TWPD biologist Penny Wilkerson.
“It’s really only just a matter of time before they are here,” Wilkerson says.
But bears face unique obstacles in Texas. West Arkansas is filled with state-protected bottomland hardwood forests, Wilkerson says; more densely populated East Texas isn’t as welcoming, and forests there are endangered by reservoir construction. More than 95 percent of Texas land is privately owned, placing bear habitat at odds with human interests.
Still, one model predicts a 10 percent chance of a viable bear population returning to northeast Texas.
“It may not happen in a decade, but there is a higher likelihood of it happening now than there’s ever been,” says Stephen Lange, TPWD’s regional director of wildlife in East Texas.
Moving from wilderness into populated areas can bring more dangers for bears. Bears here have been spotted as far west as Lake Texoma, north of Dallas. But without robust tracking, we simply can’t say what happens to most of them. Doan-Crider says that the “shoot, shovel, and shut up” method is not unheard of. Bear hunting is illegal under Texas law, except when defending your property.
This is only complicated by the increased suburbanization of Texas in recent years, as metro areas grow at dizzying rates. As towns creep ever closer to wilderness, sprawl leaves bears searching for intact habitats. Black bears—brave (and hungry) species that they are—are capable of climbing past highways, and a sighting in someone’s backyard wouldn’t be a first. Just last week, Lange says, TPWD reported its first bear fatality in East Texas, where a bear was struck by a car in Bowie County.
“Urbanization is a problem. Most parts of East Texas are fairly densely populated with people. So that’s one of the reasons why those animals haven’t propagated here,” Lange says.
Black bears have also simply not been enough of a presence in Texas to merit a real effort toward protection, or even funding to train people on how to properly behave around them.
“There’s an old adage: a fed bear is a dead bear,” says Jonah Evans, a state mammologist with TPWD. “Once the bear gets a taste for food from people, it’s almost impossible to retrain that bear to be afraid of people to avoid human habitation.”
But the recent uptick in the bear population throughout the state has perhaps led to a détente with humans. Across the state, TPWD is preparing for the influx of bears. That often means relatively simple fixes, such as upgrading to bear-proof dumpsters with hidden handles.
“It takes a little bit of a learning curve for people to do the right level of behavior modification required to be compatible with bears,” Evans says. “But it’s something that I think Texans are willing to do, because it’s a species that almost everybody loves to have around.”
Correction: This story has been amended to clarify that Raymond Skiles, not Diana Doan-Crider, said there are about three dozen bears living in the Chisos Mountains.