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A Case for Arkansas Black Bear

Arkansas Sportsman Magazine, October 2008

By Clay Newcomb

Recently, while studying a Black bear (Ursus americanus) distribution map of North America, an isolated population of bears in the south-central United States put a smile on my face.  This unique population of bears finds its home in the Ozark Highlands, Ouachita Mountains and some counties in the delta of Arkansas.  These bears, symbolized by a small green splotch on the map, have filled my mind with fascination and awe since I was a boy growing up in the heart of the Ouachita Mountains.  The bear is the time honored symbol of wilderness and is iconic of an era when “wildness” reigned supreme in the ancient mountains and deltas that we now call Arkansas.  As a boy in the town of Mena in the early 1990’s, I remember seeing a bow kill black bear in the back of a pickup.  A local hunting legend had harvested the bear and I have been forever mesmerized by the bruin and all that it represented.  I suspect every hunter who has taken a bear, and many of those who have not, have sensed the same sense of awe and respect when in the presence of this great animal.  I have acquired a deep-seated appreciation for the black bear and this huntable era in Arkansas history in which we now live.

Arkansas Black Bear History

When the Europeans arrived in North America, the black bear ranged from the Arctic Circle to Guatemala in Central America.  Unofficially known as “The Bear State”, Arkansas was home to an estimated 50,000 black bear at one time.  Some biologists believe that Arkansas may have had some of the most dense black bear populations in North America.  As Arkansas became more populated with Europeans from the east, they hunted the black bear extensively for its meat, oil and fur.  In the mid 1800’s one trading company in Washington Post Arkansas recorded buying over 900 bear pelts in one year’s time.  Aside from bear meat providing protein for the table, bear “oil” or “grease” was considered a high quality oil and was a valuable commodity.  The hides were used for making leather goods and the hair used to make fishing lures and stuffing pillows, among many other things. Some even claimed bear oil could cure baldness! 

However, by the turn of the 20th century unregulated hunting and massive degradation of habitat (due to extensive landscape level logging and agriculture) had all but extirpated the black bear from its once vast homeland here in Arkansas.  For the first time in 10,000 years the majestic bruins were nowhere to be found in the Ozark and Ouachita mountains. By 1940 only a small remnant population of bear, estimated at 25 animals, was still living in the rugged and remote White River National Wildlife Refuge.  However, in 1958 the fate of the black bear here in Arkansas would change forever.  The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) between the years of 1958 and 1968 traded bass and wild turkey for 254 black bear from Minnesota and Canada.  These bear were released in remote areas of Arkansas that had suitable bear habitat.  The 1908 establishment of the Ozark and Ouachita National forest had allowed the oak hickory forest to regenerate after years of intense logging.  By 1958 the forest was beginning to heal and could once again sustain a population of bears. In biological literature the reintroduction of the Arkansas black bear is considered to be one of the most successful reintroductions of large carnivorous mammals ever in the world.  Today the bear population in Arkansas is between 3,000 and 3,500 and is slightly increasing according to AGFC bear coordinator Rick Eastridge.  It is estimated that 2,000 of these bears are in the Ozarks, 1,000 are in the Ouachitas and 500 are in the Delta.

This is good news for Arkansas sportsmen and anyone who values biologic diversity.  In my opinion, and obviously in the opinion of the Creator, an Arkansas without bears is incomplete.  The void in the ecosystem would play second fiddle to the void in our hearts if our adventures afield were absent of a potential encounter with a bear!  If all the Arkansas campfire bear stories could be told, there would be books upon books to be written! However, due to the infrequency and uniqueness of each bear encounter, stories tend to get bigger and taller with every passing hunting season!  At a recent campfire I overheard a gentleman “tell for truth” a story of a Polk County man in the 1970’s who unknowingly entered a bear den and was “scalped” by a bear leaving the man bald to this day! This story is just the tip of the iceberg.

Bear Hunting in Arkansas

  In 1927 bear hunting was officially closed in the state.  After the reintroduction, the first official bear hunt in the state took place in 1980 with a five day season in early December.  During this hunt only 5 bears were taken in the entire state.  However, today things are much different here in Arkansas.  Bear season starts on October 1st and runs until November 30th and is open in 30 counties.  Bear hunting is open to archery, black powder and modern gun in their respective seasons.  In 2001 the AGFC made it legal to bait bear on private lands.  This seemed to open the flood gate of opportunity for Arkansas’ dormant bear hunters.  In 2001 Arkansas had a record harvest of 374 bears.  In the last seven years since 2001 the harvest has not dropped below 260 animals.  In the twenty previous years we had only broke the 200 harvest mark in 1996 and 1999. 

We have indeed entered a new era of black bear management in the state. Rick Eastridge says that the AGFC will continue to promote bear hunting to provide recreational opportunity and management of the state’s bear population.  Generally, the management strategy is to take out 10% of the bear population annually.  Mr. Eastridge also said, “Hunters are a critical tool in managing black bears.  Hunters help control bear populations and keep them within the cultural carrying capacity of the land.  Bear hunting can reduce human bear conflicts by reducing bear populations levels and densities.  Many bear experts believe, to some extent, that hunting helps reinforce the bear’s natural fear of humans.”

 A Brief Lesson in Bear Biology

In my opinion, the first step in becoming a better bear hunter is to grow in appreciation for the black bear by becoming more familiar with their habits.  Understanding their biology and knowledge of their ways will help us be more successful hunters and conservationists. 

Black bears reach sexual maturity at approximately 3.5 to 4.5 years and breed during the summer months.  Their gestation period is 7-8 months and this includes a period of delayed implantation of 4-5 months, where fertilized egg or eggs do not implant on the uterine wall and begin growing until the proper time.  1 to 4 cubs are born in the January den and remain with mother the entire year and den with her again the second winter.  The sow bears are bred and produce a litter every two years.  Black bears have one of the lowest reproductive rates of land mammals in North America.  The bears small litter size, long reproductive cycle and late sexual maturity combine to make this statement true.

A bears diet in Arkansas consists of more the 75% plant material including: grasses, leaves, blackberries, blueberries, huckleberries, pokeweed, devil’s walking stick, peppervine, wild cherries, persimmon and wild grapes, etc.  However, the bear’s “bread and butter” according to Rick Eastridge is the fall hard mast including; acorns, pecans and hickory nuts.  In the fall black bears can eat 15,000 calories per day in preparation for the winter denning.  The other 25% of the bear’s diet is animal matter which mostly comes from ants, beetles and grubs.  Bear at times are opportunistic hunters catching and eating various types of small game.

When asked about bear densities in Arkansas, Rick Eastridge said “In Arkansas, bear densities vary according to habitat quality.  It is generally thought that 1 bear per 1000 acres is a very good (high) bear density.  There are some areas in the Highlands where you might find densities like this.  The average across the highlands is more like 1 bear per 3,000 acres.  However, in the White River National Wildlife refuge we have documented densities of 1 bear per 300 acres.  Densities here have been reduced as a result of hunting but they are still quite high.”  Eastridge also said that bear in Arkansas generally have a home range between 20 and 50 square miles.

When asked about the “Carrying Capacity” of the habitat for bear here in Arkansas, Mr. Eastridge explained that this is not a relevant question.  The limiting factor for growth of the bear population is not the land but is in fact the “Cultural Carrying Capacity”.  The definition of “Cultural Carrying Capacity” is the population of a species that the people of a certain geographic region will tolerate.  When asked what would improve bear habitat statewide, Mr. Eastridge replied “More human tolerance and understanding of bears.”  The point is, here in Arkansas we have some excellent bear habitat in many parts of the state and this is not the major limiting factor of bear expanding their range.  Human tolerance of bears is the primary limiting factor.  As sportsmen we can play a positive role in creating a more favorable public opinion of black bears in the state.

Top Bear producing counties

In the last 6 years, from 2001 to 2006, the top 5 bear producing counties have 24 of 30 times come from the Ozarks.  The only non Ozark counties in the yearly top 5 in the last 6 years have been Polk, Scott, Desha and Arkansas.  Needless to say the Ozark counties of Newton, Johnson and Pope are the front runners for the top Arkansas counties for harvesting bear. These 3 Ozark counties seem to be the “The Black Bear Triangle of Arkansas”.  Rugged, remote and sparsely populated Newton County has been the black bear hatchery of Arkansas for the last 6 years and likely eons previous.  Newton has been the top harvesting county the last 4 of 6 years. As well, Newton County has produced the most bear of any other county in the last 6 years with 198 bear harvests.  Johnson County runs a close second with 187 bears, Pope comes in third with 154 bears checked from 2001 until 2006. The top two bear producing Ouachita counties are Polk and Scott, with 94 and 93 bears checked in the last 6 hunting seasons.  The highest bear producing county in the delta region is Desha County with 134 bear harvests in the last 6 years.

Best picks for Arkansas black bear hotspots

Arkansas’ black bear population can be divided into three distinct jurisdictions: Ozark Highlands, Ouachita Mountains and the Delta populations respectively. We will discuss the top WMA’s and public lands in each jurisdiction

Ozark Bear Hotspots

For an Arkansas hunter looking for a new bear skin rug and some bear steak this fall his best bet may be to hunt in the Ozarks.  The AGFC estimates that almost two thirds of states bear population resides in the Ozarks.  As well, public hunting can be productive if a hunter can muster the savvy to brave the rough, remote and rugged Ozarks.  Few Arkansas hunting endeavors can rival the challenge of going head to head with the black bear on public land.  Here are the top producing WMA’s in the Ozarks:

Ozark National Forest WMA consists of 678,878 acres in 10 counties (Conway, Crawford, Franklin, Johnson, Madison, Newton, Pope, Searcy, Van Buren and Washington). The most recent bear harvest reports from 2006 show this WMA harvesting 45 bears.  This area is vast and rugged, a hopeful bear hunter would do well to key in on one particular area and learn it well.  Be confident, the bear are here.  Staying in the top bear producing counties is your best bet. Be sure to wear two pair socks, you’ll need to cover some ground!

White Rock WMA is locally known as supreme bear country.  It lies in Crawford, Franklin, Washington, Madison, Johnson counties. Due to its uniquely rugged 280,000 acres, the 17 bears taken from here in 2006 made this a pristine place to harvest a bruin. You better pack your lunch, the hollows are deep, the rocks are big and mountains are high!

Piney Creek WMA ( 176,000 acres) located in Newton, Johnson and Pope Counties produced 8 bear in 2006.  Located in the “Black Bear Triangle”, this WMA is number two in bear harvest per acre in the state.  This is beautiful country as well as prime time bear habitat! 

Top Producing Ouachita WMA’s 

The Ouachita Mountain regions bear population is expanding.  Due to its vast size, the opportunities for bear hunting abound.  The two bear that I have taken have come from the Ouachitas and I can say first hand that the bear are thick in many areas.

Muddy Creek WMA, in 2006, harvested more bear per acre than any other WMA in the state. It is located in Montgomery, Scott and Yell counties. Though the total harvest was only 10 bears, the 146,206 acres produced a bear every 14,620 acres. Though this number may not seem that encouraging, it is quite high considering that most public land bear harvests are opportunistic deer hunters not in sole pursuit of bear.  Muddy Creek would certainly be a top pick for Ouachita mountain bear.

Winona WMA (160,000 acres) is located in Saline, Perry and Garland Counties.  This WMA has consistently produced bears, the 2006 harvest was 6 bears.  The terrain here is typical of the Ouachitas and would make a lovely back drop for your 2008 bear harvest photos!

Caney Creek WMA contains 85,000 acres of remote Ouachita mountain bear country in Polk, Pike, Howard and Montgomery counties.  Considering the limited hunting pressure that this WMA receives, the 4 bear taken in 2006 were just the unlucky few.  The bear are here, period.  Diligent study of topographic maps combined with some scouting footwork could produce a 2008 bear for you.

Top Ranking WMA's for Bear havests per acre from 2001-2006

Delta Public Land Black Bear

Trusten Holder WMA’s 10,000 acres in Arkansas County offers the only public land bear hunting opportunity in the delta.  The WMA bear hunt is limited to archery only.  See AGFC.com for more information.

In closing, the Arkansas bear population may be one of the most valuable natural resources that our state has. As humans, we often take for granted the things that we assume we will always have.  Cultivating an appreciation for black bear and understanding the unique hunting opportunity we have in this state is paramount for all Arkansas sportsmen.  We are the only southern state west of the Mississippi river with a stabilized and huntable bear population. Few things can compare with the sighting of a big black bear in a remote Ozark hollow, or a late summer glimpse of a sow and her cubs as they forage in a Ouachita mountain blackberry patch.  These sightings and dealings with the black bear of our state have branded my heart with an appreciation that is hard to describe.  As our world becomes increasingly urbanized, and the hearts of the masses seem to be drifting further away from the wild places, let us protect and value what ‘wildness’ remains.  My hope is that our children will have the same opportunities that we have had to hunt the ancient and majestic bruins that roam the hills of Arkansas.