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Arkansas Bears
Achieving Their Natural State

Black Bear

Black Bear - National Park Service Photo

By Gina Kokes, guest writer Arkansas Department of P&T

In 1928 the legendary symbol of Arkansas's natural beauty and wilderness spirit was a rare sight. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission reported the bear population had

dwindled down to a couple dozen animals concentrated in the flat, thick, hardwood forests of the White River Delta country nestled in the V-shaped confluence of the Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers. Roughly 100 years earlier, Arkansas may have had the one the largest populations of black bears in the United States. The animal's abundance in the region, along with widely published hunting stories in the late 1800s, earned Arkansas the title of the "Bear State." At this crucial point in the late 1920s, however, this magnificent species' presence in the state was jeopardized.

Bears in Arkansas's Past

The black bear has a rich history in Arkansas. Native American stories include bears as healers and keepers of spiritual well-being. Bears were often hunted in the winter when they denned under ridges or in hollow trees, sometimes as high as 50 feet above the ground. Native Americans would start a fire at the base of the tree or cave, and the escaping bear was quickly killed. All parts of the bear were utilized: meat and fat for food, skins for clothing, and claws and teeth for jewelry and rituals. Bear oil was "mixed with a red dye, scented with sassafras and rubbed on the skin and hair" as a conditioner and insect repellent, according to historical accounts published in an October, 2001 Arkansas Sportsman article, "Arkansas Bruins: History and Hunting," by Keith Sutton.

European explorers and settlers also relied on the black bear for survival. Hernando De Soto, a Spanish explorer in the mid-1500s, documented the animal's presence in Indian diets, and he may have hunted them during his expeditions. Later, adventurers would consider bear meat not only a food staple but a luxury. In dense forests, grapevines seek sunlight by twining up tall trees. Bears, excellent climbers, would often feast on the grapes. "The result being a meat excessively rich and finely flavored," wrote American Colonial soldier Jonathan Carver in the mid-1800s.

"Bear meat was preferred by the Indians and traders to that of any other animal" because of the "excellence of the bear's fat which is sweet and wholesome," Carver wrote. And it didn't turn rancid -- a problem with butter and other fats.

The popularity of bear fat and skins fostered development of a large hunting industry at the Arkansas Post settlement, a trading center on the Arkansas River in southeast Arkansas. "Huge quantities of bearskins and oil sewn up in deerskins were shipped downstream to New Orleans where bear skins sold for $1 and oil for $1 a gallon," according to accounts in "Arkansas Bruins: History and Hunting." Bear oil was so plentiful, the small town of Oil Trough received its name not from petroleum products, but from bear oil stored in wooden troughs.

The bear mystique was further perpetuated throughout the country because Arkansas was isolated from the east-west frontier migration pattern. The state was downstream from the well-traveled Ohio-Missouri river routes and virtually inaccessible from the east because of swamps, flooded plains and thick patches of canebrake. Americans knew little about the area, and Arkansas became known as an out-of-the-way place. Tall-tales and travel accounts featured in out-of-state newspapers and magazines often depicted images such as those found in Wild Sports in the West published in 1855: "...a wilderness filled with adventure and...backwoodsmen who reveled in the sport of bear hunting."

As a romantic glow settled on the concept of the frontier, the depiction of Arkansas as a place of rugged natural beauty where bears roamed unchecked became an endearing icon in the minds of many outsiders.

Unfortunately, reality did not match the idealized image. By the early 1900's, the black bear population was decimated by over-hunting coupled with the long-held belief that bears should be killed on sight. In addition, the Ozark logging boom in the late 1800's plus the creation of additional farmland in the Delta drastically reduced habitat necessary for the animal's survival. By the late 1920's, bears were so scarce hunting was prohibited in hopes of restoring the animal population. Even with the ban, the native group increased to only 40 or 50 bears over the next 20 years.

The Making of a Comeback

In 1949, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission made a crucial decision to reestablish the species and released four bears in the Ozark Mountains. Ten years later, the Commission entered into an agreement with Minnesota and the Canadian province of Manitoba to import black bears in return for wild turkey and bass. More than 250 bears were eventually transferred to the remote areas of the Ozark and Ouachita national forests.

By the early 1970's, black bears started reclaiming their ancestral home -- the population was estimated at 600-700 bears and rising each year. Arkansas state biologist Rick Eastridge, said the program has become "one of the most successful large carnivore re-introductions in the United States." Currently, Eastridge said an estimated 3,500 animals are located in several isolated parts of the state.

Reintroducing any wild animal into its original habitat is not without problems. Bears have lived up to their Indian nickname of "Sticky Mouth," raiding many commercial bee hives. State agencies and owners are working to place protective fences around apiaries. Also, male adolescent bears, without established territories, are prone to wander into inhabited areas, especially after tasting human or pet food. Such nuisance bears are relocated to isolated areas and destroyed only as a last resort.

Despite their growing numbers and reputation as fierce creatures, unprovoked attacks on humans are uncommon. The bear's inherent timidity and extraordinary senses of hearing and smell facilitates a quick retreat from such encounters. When assaults have occurred, people either surprised or posed a threat to the animal. In the Ozarks in 1998, a mother bear bit a man's feet as he clung to a tree after his dog chased the animal near her cubs. Eastridge said hikers in the Ozarks have probably been in close proximity to bears many times, but the animals "tend to scatter" and avoid discovery. He warned against feeding, baiting or engaging the animals, even though they may seem placid. Respect and distance are the key words in dealing with any wild animal.

Bear Hunting Returns

Even though bears try to avoid humans, sightings throughout the Ozark, Ouachita and Delta regions have become more common -- serving as testimony of their increased population. In fact, bear hunting has been allowed in the Ozarks and Ouachitas since 1980, but hunting was allowed for the first time in the counties that make up the White River National Wildlife Refuge in December of 2001. This part of the Delta, where the last original animals were located, now harbors one of the thickest concentrations of black bears in the United States.

The Game and Fish Commission established a statewide bear quota of 400 animals for the 2001 season, and approximately 370 were killed, according to Eastridge. In the case of the newly allowed Delta hunt, the purpose, he explained, was not only to thin the population, which had reached capacity, but to eliminate nuisance bears and to "reintroduce the fear of humans." Fear has the positive effect of keeping bears away from populated areas, thereby assisting in their long-term survival, he added.

The Future of Arkansas's Bruins

E.O. Wilson, sociobiologist, said "there can be no purpose more spiriting than to begin the age of restoration, reweaving the wondrous diversity of life." The black bears have returned to their natural habitat through the foresight, determination and patience of many Arkansans. With continued perseverance, they will remain, and forever be, an important part of the state's heritage.

(Jonathan Carver's referenced accounts appear in John Bakeless', "America As Seen By Its First Explorers, The Eyes of Discovery," republished by Dover Publications of New York in 1989.)

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