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The Greatest Restoration

A Tale of the Arkansas Black Bear

From one of the largest bear populations in North America to near extirpiration by the turn of the 20th century, Arkansas black bear have been on an amazing journey. This article discusses the history, decimation and restoration of the Arkansas black bear. A part of our wildlife history that every Arkansan should know about.

When European explorers first reached the boundaries of what we now call Arkansas, they breathed in what no man on planet earth has breathed in the last 300 years - the rich musty air of a primarily unaltered ecosystem. The father of wildlife management Aldo Leopold would have called it an unmolested ‘Land Organism’. The phrase suggesting that the land, biota, flora and fauna all functioned together as one organism. Losing or eliminating even a single species of plant or animal would then handicap the ecosystem as a whole, much like a human losing a vital functioning part of their body.

The air that these early explorers breathed was shared with an estimated 50,000 black bears (Ursus americanus). Biologists estimate that pre-settlement Arkansas was covered in almost 100% forrest, except for the extreme northwestern corner. This population estimate projects one bear per square mile across the entire state. Before 1923 Arkansas was without an official tagline and was unofficially known as “The Bear State. Some experts believe the nutrient rich oak hickory forests of the Ozarks, Ouachitas and Gulf Coastal plains made some of the most pristine bear habitat on earth. Correspondingly, bear populations in Arkansas were estimated to be one of the largest in North America. When early explorers arrived the Arkansas black bear reigned supreme as the top carnivore, living off of the fat of the land. Their only predator was the native Americans who gave this land its name, ‘Arkansas’ - a Quapaw word which means “down stream people”. 

The native Americans utilization strategy of the black bear was much different than the late coming european settlers. By the turn of the 20th century these settlers had decimated the population of bears in the state. Over the course of 120 years the bear numbers were ravaged by unregulated market hunting, landscape level logging, and habitat destruction through the encroachment of civilization and agriculture. Populations in the state went from 50,000 to an approximated 25-40 animals by 1940. This remnant population was believed hidden away in the lower White River drainage in the Arkansas delta.

In the 1800’s bears were very much apart of life here in “The Bear State”. Early recorded accounts of pioneer life recount that if meat was served on the table, it was likely bear meat. Arkansan’s hunted bear for profit, subsistence, and to rid the country of a perceived vermin. The meat, oil and fur was a valuable commodity that could be used at home or sold at the market. Bear meat was used for food and was worth $10 per hundred pounds. In 1806 bear skins at Washington Post were sold between $1 and $2 each, the price dependent upon the size and quality. Bear ‘oil’ or ‘grease’ was considered a high quality oil that did not go rancid as quickly as other animal oils. This valuable commodity could be sold for $1 per gallon and was measured in “ells”. An ell was formed from the hide and neck of a deer and was used to contain, transport and measure bear oil. An ell was a standard medium of exchange in Arkansas in the 1800‘s.  Bear skins stretched out to dry on front of homes was a symbol of status as well as the number ells of bear oil a man possessed. Potentially, a 300 lb bear in the 1800’s would have been worth between $12 and $15 dollars.  This dollar amount in our day would likely be equivalent to hundreds of dollars. Market hunters willing to tolerate a wilderness lifestyle could have made a respectable living hunting in Arkansas (Information from ‘Hunting Arkansas’ by Keith Sutton). 

In the mid 1800’s one single trading company in Washington Post Arkansas recorded buying more than 900 bear pelts in one year’s time.  When you consider that other companies were buying bear commodities as well, one could estimate that thousands of black bears were yearly being harvested in the state. Large harvests year after year accompanied by massive habitat degradation combined to bring the bear to their knees by turn of the 20th century.

Habitat destruction was an equally strong a player in the demise of bear in Arkansas. Presumably, if market hunters had not killed out bear, they would have been biologically unsuccessful for lack of quality habitat.  As railroads were built in the 1800’s Arkansas’ virgin timber was harvested at an amazing pace.  Almost every square mile of the state was logged at one time during this 150 year period. Timber markets in the east couldn’t be satiated and timber from Arkansas exported to eastern markets. Bears need large tracts of unfragmented habitat, vast amounts of mast producing tree and plant species, and remote suitable cover to thrive - all of which were eliminated.

During the first half of the 20th century, after bear populations were nearly gone, the black bear was all but forgotten in Arkansas as their numbers dwindled into the double digits. True to human nature, once the resource was dried up few likely even remembered the great bruins that had roamed the land of the ‘down stream people’.

In 1927 the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission officially closed bear hunting in the state. The next 30 years was a silent and dark time for the legacy of the bear. However, in 1958 things would begin change.  In 1908 the Ozark and Ouachita National Forrests had been established and after 50 years the forests had began to mature again.  The timber in the forrest was over 50 years old and the oak, hickory and beechnut trees were old enough to produce good mast.  The land began to heal itself and after 100 years of unrestrained habitat degradation, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission surmised the land could again sustain a population of black bears.

In 1958, Newton county native and AGFC Chief of Wildlife Management, Gene Rush, initiated a bear reintroduction program in Arkansas. Bears from Minnesota and Canada were traded for bass and wild turkey from Arkansas. Over the course of the next 10 years approximately 254 were transported in pickup trucks, 6 bears per load, to the interior highlands of Arkansas. Young females were targeted for translocation as well as a lesser number young males. The bears were released in three known sites in the Ozark and Ouachita range. The Ozark releases were in northern Franklin county in the Black Mountain area (White Rock) and at Piney Creek in Johnson county. In the Ouachitas bears were released in the Muddy Creek area.  The reintroduction of bears was done with very little, if any public input.  Many AGFC officials believed that limiting factor for black bear in the state would be indiscriminate killing by humans. Though many were likely poached the problem wasn’t as dramatic as some calculated it would be. The vast rugged terrain of the release sites made bear human contact a rare thing.

In 1973 the AGFC classified the Black Mountain release as a failure. Few sightings of bear occurred and their was no evidence of reproduction. The other two release were considered successful. However, the Black Mountain failure was later declared a success and by 1980 their was an estimated 1200 to 1500 bears in the Ozark and Ouachita regions. By 1990 populations were estimated at 2,500 animals. Over the course of 30 years in the remote and rugged mountains and hollows, removed from the sight of man, the translocated bears found a home in Arkansas. Bountiful summer and fall mast, mild winters and remote vast terrain produced again what gave “The Bear State” its name. In 2010 bear numbers are estimated to be between 4,000 and 4,500 animals statewide. New population studies are being conducted now that will give us further insight in bears in the twenty first century.

In the wildlife biology community the Arkansas reintroduction of black bears is considered the most successful reintroduction of large carnivores in the world. Reintroduction meaning, capturing and relocating wild animals in other regions. Success of the program is attributed to habitat quality of the release sites and number of wild animals released over the 10 year period. Overall, this is arguably the greatest successes of the Arkansas’ wildlife history. The beauty of conservation is in the fruit produced years after the initial strategy was birthed. Arkansan’s in the 21rst century now reap the benefits of what other’s sowed years ago during the reintroduction years.

Authors note: Information for this article was found in various places. The bulk of the information was attained from the “Proceedings Tenth Eastern Workshop on Black Bear Research and Management 1990” edited by Joseph D. Clark and Dr. Kimberly G. Smith.