Scientists Track Bears Migrating North Into Texas

News Release


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
DATE: June 23, 2006
CONTACT: Norman Martin, norman.martin@ttu.edu
(806) 742-4108

LUBBOCK – A rare migrant population of small black bears has crossed the U.S.-Mexico border and established a tenuous toehold along a swath of rugged Chihuahuan desert in a remote corner of Texas.

Texas Tech University scientists believe there are less than 50 of the bruins in the arid Trans-Pecos region, and they’re likely to migrate northward toward the Davis Mountains as their numbers rise.

For the past three years, a research team headed by Warren Ballard has worked with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to identify the likely movement of the bears and pinpoint any affected landowners, especially ranchers with livestock.

The findings will be incorporated into a statewide strategic plan for the conservation and management of bears.

“These bears are living in a completely different environment than other bear populations in North America,” said Ballard, a wildlife biologist and internationally recognized expert on predator-prey ecology.

The North American Bear Center in Ely, Minn., estimates 750,000 black bears live in the United States, Canada and northern Mexico. About 55,000 black bears are killed annually by hunters in North America. In Texas, however, the bears are so rare that they’re considered threatened under Texas law.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is not attempting to reintroduce black bears to the Trans-Pecos.

“Really, the core population of this group of bears is down in Mexico,” Ballard said. “What they’re concerned about is making sure the habitat is available if necessary for expansion.”

Today, scientists estimate that there are only 30 to 50 black bears in the Trans Pecos. The isolated region encompasses the state’s nine far western counties between the banks of the Rio Grande to the Pecos Rivers. The area is known for the 801,000-acre Big Bend National Park on the southwest point of Texas, and the even less accessible Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

To determine the bears’ likely movements, Mindy Rice, a doctoral student who helped to guide operations in the field, mapped a number of variables, including land cover, elevation, water sources and roads throughout the Trans-Pecos. Bear sightings were then added to the map. Over the past century there have been about 3,000 reported sightings of black bears in this area of Texas.

Texas Tech scientists believe the black bears crossed the border from Northern Mexico in recent years, and the population is expanding north in search of more suitable woodlands.

“One of the most probable expansion areas is Davis Mountains in the central Trans-Pecos,” Rice said. “This area will better support them with wooded areas.”

Despite the abundance of wide open spaces, there’s barely room for bear expansion.

“Really, less than 10 percent of this entire region is suitable for bears,” she said. “That’s certainly going to limit growth. This population will always be small because of that Chihuahuan desert environment.”

Trans-Pecos black bears are a little different than their counterparts in other parts of the country.

“There’s some evidence that due to the weather they may not go into hibernation for long periods,” she said. “They’re also smaller because they don’t get the nutrition that other bears receive.”

Separately, the Tech researchers conducted a landowner survey, ranking how 472 residents felt about recolonization of the black bears. Younger, better educated residents tended to favor the presence of the bears, while older, more traditional participants were more negative.

“Obviously, in a ranching community some people don’t welcome predators, but we found a clear split among the population,” Ballard said.

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CONTACT: Warren Ballard, professor of predator/prey interactions, Department of Range, Wildlife and Fisheries Management, Texas Tech University (806) 742-1983, or warren.ballard@ttu.edu