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Habitat

The ‘Bread and Butter’ of Arkansas Black Bear

By Clay Newcomb

This article discusses bear habitat needs, Arkansas’ bear habitat, and potential land management strategies for increasing quality of bear habitat.

Introduction

The reintroduction of black bear into Arkansas is considered in the biological community, the most successful reintroduction of its kind - anywhere in the world.  Gene Rush and the AGFC team, who dared to dream of the possibilities of reintroduction, likely never realized the brilliance and ‘breath of God’ that must have inhabited the initial seed thought. Bears in the ‘Bear State’ are like ‘fins on a fish’, you can’t have one without the other. Bears bring to Arkansas a distinct value that manifests in biodiversity and a wilderness flavor, unique to the southern states. To use the words of Aldo Leopold, bears bring to Arkansas greater completion the ‘Land Organism’, a term used to describe an ecosystem in which all pieces work together as one unit.

The primary factor relating to the success of bears reintroduction in Arkansas, has to do with the quality of habitat in the Ozarks and Ouachitas. The eroded plateau of the Ozarks is characterized by limestone bluffs, gorgeous rivers and massive tracts of hardwood timber. The twisted rock strata of the Ouachitas is the only mountain range running east and west on the continent of North American. This region is characterized by pine/hardwood timber, vast inaccessible regions and beautiful waterways. These two regions combine to make Arkansas - ‘Bear Country’.

Quality of Land

Big Hardwood Timber

The second habitat component, is the quality of bear habitat. Bears have very specific habitat needs.  The first and foremost habitat type that is associated with bears in Arkansas is stands of mature hardwood timber.  Mature stands of timber provide cover, den sites and massive amounts of hard and soft mast.  The primary type of mast provided, is in the form of acorns and hickory nuts.  In some remote regions, beechnut’s provide some hard mast.  The fall ‘hyperphagy’ of bears, or their relentless quest for food in preparation for winter denning, is a key biological feature of their survival strategy. Their fall feast is debatably their most important time of the year. Consequently, they make their living off of the fall hard mast.  Bears can gain up to two pounds per day in the fall while gorging themselves on carbohydrate rich nuts. 

Also associated with mature timber are numerous variety of soft mass. Understory story trees like dogwood, blackgum and downy serviceberry produce fruit that bears eat.  However, the primary soft mast associated with big timber are blueberries. Bears in the Ouachitas particularly, make their living off this delicious berry. The Ozark’s have a larger percentage of hardwood timber than the Ouachita region.

Overall, big mature hardwood timber is the prime habitat for bears.  Especially, north facing slopes that are characterized by high soil moisture and organic matter.  These areas usually have few pine trees, and they grow massive amounts of nutrient rich bear food - from herbaceous plants, to hard and soft mast.  These areas are particularly critical for bears and should be preserved. 


Clear Cuts

Clearcuts or ‘regeneration’ areas can and do have habitat value for bears. Because of the removed canopy of larger trees, sunlight that reaches the forest floor catalyzes an amazing assortment of soft mast production that bears love. Another article on www.arbear.org details the different varieties of soft mast that bears utilize. It is debatable wither the timber industry in Arkansas helped or hurt the bears. None the less, we have vast amounts of regeneration areas that do provide quality habitat for bears.

However, it is important that we discuss how bears use regeneration areas and how land managers could increase their value to bears, and other wildlife. A few subtle changes in the way timber is harvested could increase the habitat value dramatically and should be noted.

First of all, a bears life is not solely driven by food consumption.  Other factors that influence bear activity and corresponding habitat use are: breeding, avoidance of humans, water intake, denning, avoidance of extreme temperatures, ease of travel, security, avoidance of other bears, etc. With this knowledge and other data from telemetry studies in Arkansas, it is clear that just because food is available doesn’t mean that bears will access it. The issues with regeneration areas have to do with these other issues of bear habitat use.

Large clearcut areas provide little security for bears. Massive clearcuts may only be used on the fringes by bears because of security issues related to going into the vast open areas. Sows with cubs typically will not use vast open areas because their are no large trees for the cubs to retreat to. It could be described this way, if you had a 100 acre continuous clearcut, potentially only 20 acres of the fringe would be valuable to bears. 

As well, areas where timber is harvested typically means more roads.  Roads make these areas more accessible to humans, consequently making the habitat less valuable to bears.  A bear would rather live in less quality habitat with security, than high quality habitat with much human intrusion. 

Clearcut areas produce vast amounts of browse and soft mast for all types of wildlife. These areas would be be more valuable to wildlife if land managers slightly modified the way in which timber is harvested. Here are a few practical ideas for increasing wildlife habitat value in clearcut areas. First of all, leave small islands of timber in the middle of large cut areas. Secondly, sporadically leave some mature trees standing throughout the cut areas. Thirdly, leave strips of timber along drainage areas to bisect the patches of cut timber. This would connect the surrounding stands of timber, and give bears and other wildlife narrow travel routes and increased security. Fourth, create and irregular edge pattern rather than long linear boundaries. Lastly, reduce the overall size of clearcuts. Rather than having one 40 acre clear cut, make 4 separate cuts, 9 acre each, divided by small strips of timber. These procedures would require minimal monetary sacrifice from land managers and would produce dramatic increases in habitat quality for all wildlife.

Conclusion

Arkansas is home to some of the finest bear habitat in the southern United States.  The reason for our successful bear population is completely related to the quality and quantity of habitat in our state.  Understanding what habitat needs bears have will give Arkansas land managers greater insight into land management practices that will benefit bears, and all wildlife. Let’s keep the wild places wild and the ‘Natural State’ natural.