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One hundred-fifty years before I took office, Arkansas was home to so many black bears that we were known as The Bear State, but by the early years of the last century, enthusiastic hunters had thinned the population to the point that the General Assembly outlawed bear hunting.
Today I’d like to share a bit of the story of the demise and the historic reintroduction of the black bear in our state.
I learned much of this history two weeks ago when I accompanied several of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s 14-member bear team on a visit to a bear den near Jessieville. The team is led by Game and Fish Deputy Director Roger Mangham and Myron Means, the coordinator of the Large Carnivore Program. The annual survey starts in January and is complete by the end of March.
The team tracks the bears with radio collars that allow them to distinguish one bear from another and to find each bear’s den. As they usually do, the members of the team found each of its 43 collared bears this spring.
The day I joined the team, the members were visiting the den of mama bear Brenda Lee, who has two cubs. They safely tranquilized and examined Brenda, and held her cubs to measure and weigh.
A hundred years ago, the number of Brenda Lee’s ancestors had dwindled to fewer than about 50 in the entire state. From 1958 to 1968, Arkansas brought in bears from Minnesota and Manitoba, Canada. Now the project, with almost 6,000 bears, is considered the most successful reintroduction of a large carnivore anywhere in the world.
By 1980, the state had once again allowed bear hunting in the Ozark and Ouachita mountains. This year, the Game and Fish Commission is expanding bear hunting into south Arkansas.
Myron Means, who grew up in Van Buren and now lives in his grandparents’ home there, has worked with bears for 27 years. His degrees are from Arkansas Tech and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He started his career as a field biologist in the Ozarks. In 1989, he caught his first bear, which was two years old and weighed 110 pounds. Out of the thousands of bears Myron has handled, he remembers that one. That was the moment he knew he wanted to work with bears.
A bear has never attacked him, but plenty of mama bears have bluff charged him. Myron says the mamas attempt to scare humans by running at them, but they stop short of an attack. Bears really are timid, and the bears that attack a person have lost their fear through frequent interaction with humans.
My visit with Brenda Lee and the bear team was exciting, informative, and safe. Now I can add bears to my list of Arkansas wildlife I have seen in the woods.