Caitlin Glymph, a graduate student in Stephen F. Austin State University’s Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture, is assisting the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in locating potential habitat corridors in Texas and the surrounding states, which may help facilitate the natural return of a native Texas wildlife species.
Less than a century ago, black bears roamed the forests and canebrakes of East Texas, finding sustenance in the region’s diverse ecosystems and etching out a spot in state lore and history. However, by the mid-20th century, unregulated hunting and habitat loss overcame the once-abundant East Texas black bear population.
According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, there is no documented breeding population of black bears in East Texas, yet, transient bears have been formally documented throughout the region since 1977. These sightings, which have slowly increased over time, are likely due to the recovering bear populations in Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department plans to utilize a portion of their federal research funds to help better understand and manage the natural return of this native species, said David Holdermann, wildlife diversity biologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife Region 3.
Considered a victory for conservation, last month the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed the removal of the Louisiana black bear from the list of federally threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The Louisiana black bear, which historically ranged throughout East Texas, Louisiana and Southern Mississippi, is one of 16 subspecies of the American black bear. Though federal protection of this subspecies may be removed, it will continue to remain protected in Texas.
To proactively address the transient population and potential for re-establishment in East Texas, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department adopted the East Texas Black Bear Conservation and Management Plan in 2005. The plan provides an outline for black bear ecology, habitat requirements, research and management procedures to be implemented within a 10-year span.
Past research conducted by SFA graduate students Dan Kaminski and Timothy Siegmund identified six core-recovery units in East Texas with habitat capable of supporting a viable black bear population. Though these past projects confirm more than half a million acres of suitable bear habitat exists in East Texas, Dr. Chris Comer, professor of wildlife in SFA’s Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture, said there is still one essential question that has not been answered.
“The missing piece of information for the state of Texas and with our previous research is how they (black bears) are going to get here,” Comer said.
Glymph’s research, funded by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, is the next step in proactively addressing this question.
“We want to be able to pull out the patches of suitable habitat that could be used for bears to disperse back into East Texas and recolonize it naturally,” Glymph said.
In order to accomplish this, she will rely on spatial data sets detailing the hydrology, land cover and other variables that comprise the area between currently occupied bear habitat in Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma, and the previously defined areas of suitable habitat in East Texas.
Glymph explained that although black bears mostly prefer bottomland hardwood habitat, they are habitat generalists and are capable of adapting to a number of landscapes. She also said that human development, including roads and highways, is the largest barrier for bears as they continue to expand their range.
Project advisers, Comer and Dr. Daniel Scognamillo, SFA associate professor of wildlife, said they hope the results of the project will allow natural resource specialists to effectively target areas for forest conservation education and incentive programs.
“The goal is to help make more intelligent decisions about land conservation based on those areas identified as most critical for bear habitat,” Comer said.
An additional concern for the return of Texas’ black bears is when a viable population might be established. With the return of this species occurring naturally, combined with Texas’ rapidly changing landscape, a timeline for recovery is difficult to predict, Comer said.
Using the results of Glymph’s project and future research, the college will be able to address this concern through the use of a complex modeling system.
“The ultimate goal is the successful natural recolonization of black bears in Texas,” Glymph said.
To identify the possible wildlife corridors between current breeding populations of black bears in Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma, and identified recovery zones in Southeast and Northeast Texas, Glymph will use spatial data sets detailing the land cover of the study area.