Black Bears Return!
One day in the 1980s, a black bear from the Sierra del Carmen in Northern Mexico started a journey. She descended from the mountains, walked through miles of desert, swam across the Rio Grande, and traversed more desert to reach the forested slopes of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park. She may have led offspring to the Chisos, and probably encountered a wandering male already using the park's mountain range. How they came and why they came, we may never know. But the return of bears to the park is a remarkable event. It is a success story, and a story of hope for the future.
In the early 1900s, black bears (Ursus americanus) were common in the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park. Naturalist Vernon Bailey in 1901 described bears as being “... common in the upper canyons of the Chisos Mountains, where fresh tracks of old and young were frequently seen and where there was an abundance of old 'sign' and turned over stones.” Bears continued to be common in the Chisos Mountains through the 1930s.
By the time the park was established in 1944, however, there were virtually no resident bears in the park. Shooting and trapping by ranchers, federal predator control agents, and recreational hunters, and loss of habitat due to settlement and development contributed to their decline. Individual bears occasionally wandered in and out of the park from Mexico, but only scattered sightings were reported from the 1940s through the 1980s. In 1969, and again in 1978, female bears with cubs were seen in the Chisos Mountains. Still, bears were extremely rare in the park.
The late 1980s brought an amazing turn of events. Visitors began seeing bears in increasing numbers. In 1988, a visitor photographed a female with three young cubs in the Chisos Mountains. On 27 occasions, visitors reported seeing bears that year, more evidence of a resident black bear population. Observations increased in the early 1990s. In 1996, 572 observations were recorded. In 1999 there were 343 sightings of black bears in the park. Once a large animal is eliminated from its natural range, it is rare for it to return on its own. Often, only human intervention can bring back what humans caused to disappear.
The recolonization of black bears in Big Bend is a remarkable natural event. Researchers do not know exactly why the bears returned, but it is due in part to the preservation and restoration of habitat in the park.