Comeback of the Black Bear in Region 8

March 9, 2006 – Posted at 10:08 a.m. CST

STONE COUNTY, AR -- They are part of what makes the Natural State what it is, black bears.  They are experiencing a comeback after several decades of near extinction.

Before Arkansas was the natural state, it was known around the world for its wildlife.

"The state was unofficially known as the bear state and people came from all over the world to hunt bears in Arkansas in the mid 1800's," said Rick Eastridge, Bear Program Coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

According to experts as many as 50,000 bears once roamed Arkansas before European settlement but as hunting continued and Arkansas grew the bears became almost extinct before the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission set out for the big bear comeback.

"Among the wildlife community it's consider the most successful reintroduction of a large carnivore ever attempted something I think we should all be proud of," said Eastridge.

There are roughly 3500 indigenous Arkansas Black Bears in the Region 8 area, up from a low when the area only had 40.

"Most of the state has been restocked in the 50's and 60's the Game and Fish restocked the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains with bears from Minnesota and Manitoba, Canada," said Eastridge.

Even though the population of Arkansas Black Bears is strong, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission continue to keep close tabs on these special animals.

"We put radio collars on adult females to monitor adult female survival and we track those females to their dens each winter so we can monitor reproduction. That is what we were doing today," said Eastridge.

Those collars emit a signal that biologists then follow to bear dens so that they can study this year's cubs but not before they sedate momma bear to prevent any problems.

"We give these females a shot of the immobilizing drug that is very safe to the bear," said Steve Wilson of Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

In most cases, wild bears are more scared of humans than we are of them. The Game and Fish Commission use the measurements to gage how healthy the bear population is. Now that the state has a healthy population, hunting is used as a tool to manage the population.

"It begins with an archery season that runs through October, a two week muzzle loader season toward the end of October and rifle season starts November first and runs through the end of November," said Wilson.

About 10% of the state's bears are hunted each year but biologists are careful the bears aren't over hunted.

"If we hit that quota we will stop the season early to make sure we don't over impact our bears," said Eastridge.

The commission now believes they have a healthy population of bears in the Ozarks, Ouachita's and the Delta and now is focusing on bears in Southern Arkansas.

"I think the future is very bright most Arkansans are happy we have bears and they do want to coexist with bears," said Eastridge.