The Most Successful Reintroduction in the World

Originally published March/ April 2016 in Bear Hunting Magazine

The term hibernation isn’t exactly correct when it comes to describing what bears do in the winter. They actually go into a period of estivation, which isn’t a complete of a full body shut down as true hibernation. Black bears, especially in the south, are likely to rouse on a warm winter day and rummage for food near their den periodically. A good example of hibernation would be a woodchuck. If you were to dig one out if his den in January, he would be difficult to awaken. His body temperature and heart rate would have dropped, and he would be in a deep sleep- a true hibernation. A black bear, on the other hand, awakens throughout the winter and can often be seen at the mouth of their den with their head up, patiently awaiting for green up. Their heart rate and body temperature remains relatively normal.  It really is a fascinating process.


Every winter the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) goes in and checks on the 51 sows it has collared in the state. These are bears that have been trapped in specific locations that the AGFC wants to collect data from. Arkansas has over 2.9 million acres of National Forest, which functions as the habitat-hub of Arkansas' bear population. These studies give wildlife managers insight into the reproductive success of bears in Arkansas, aiding them in making management decision. In a typical bear population, the sex ratio of cubs born would likely be 55% male and 45% female because of the natural mortality rates of males. On average in Arkansas, sows have two cubs every two years raising their first litter usually at age four. Some data in Arkansas suggests that sows as young as three years old reach sexual maturity. This might sound like quick reproduction, but bears have of the lowest reproductive rates of any large mammals in North America. Compare them to whitetail deer. Deer reproduce every year and can reach sexual maturity sometimes in their first year.


Before Arkansas had an official tagline it was known as the “Bear State.” Arkansas is split into three bear- study regions: Ozarks, Ouachitas and lower White River drainage. The White River region in the delta of Arkansas is considered the “Amazon” of the southern United States. It is believed to hold the only true remnants of Arkansas’ original bear population, which once numbered over 50,000. By the 1940s, it was believed that less than 50 bears remained in the entire state and were located near the White River. However, significant bear sign was also reported by trappers in the western Ouachitas around the turn of the century. However, between 1954 and 1964 the AGFC traded bass and wild turkey with Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Canada for 254 black bears, which were relocated into Arkansas. The bears were hauled in pickup trucks with wire cages built in the pickup bed, usually hauling multiple bears at a time. What a sight that would have been to see a pickup full of live bears!


There were three strategic locations chosen to release the bears. Troughs with commercial dog food were placed in the areas to supplement the bears while they adjusted to their new environment. No one knew how successful the relocation would be. Only time would tell. The bears melted away into the Arkansas wilderness and only rumored sightings surfaced for decades before conclusive evidence of their efforts would be realized. To make a long story short, by 1980 Arkansas reopened a limited 5-day season after 53 years of no bear hunting. The bear reintroduction of bears back into Arkansas is considered the most successful reintroduction of large carnivores in the world. That’s something to be celebrated.


In the late 1980s the AGFC did its first official population study and concluded Arkansas had between 3,000 and 4,000 bears. The population had grown over 100-fold from the 254 bears released. In 2001, Arkansas legalized baiting on private land for black bears in the Ozark and Ouachita zones (Zone 1 and 2). This gave Arkansas bear hunters a great opportunity which they’ve thoroughly used for the last 15 seasons. Since that oping season, Arkansas hunters have killed between 250 and 400 bears per season. In 2015, Arkansas hunters have harvested 393 bears.


The Den Study



In early March 2015, I was able to go with the AGFC Bear Team to visit an Arkansas bear den in Johnson County. Along on the adventure was the silent auction winner of the trip given to the Arkansas Black Bear Association by the AGFC to raise money for the ABBA. Dr. Tom Woodruff, a high school teacher, won the auction and choose to bring three of his students from Rogers High school.


Bears in the Ozarks primarily den in rock cavities, however, some den in brush tops or dig into the root balls of fallen trees. This sow was denned in the Ozark National Forest about ½ mile from a forest service road in a deep ravine under a big slab of rock, and you wouldn't have guessed that an adult bear would have even fit in the opening. She was about seven feet back in the cave with her two cubs - a male and a female.

Bear cubs are born in the den in January after a 60-day gestation period. However, most sows are bred in May, June, and July. Bears and only a few other mammals undergo a process called delayed implantation, where the fertilized egg doesn't attach to the uterine wall for a period of time. A sow’s body doesn't begin to gestate until after the fall hyperphagia (period of intense fall feeding in preparation for denning). After this fall feast, her body is able to determine if she will be capable of rearing young and how many. If she's healthy, she'll have from one to five cubs. If she's stressed and not healthy, her body will absorb the egg and she’ll never gestate.

The sow on this trip, wasn’t weighed, but from the looks of her, she was most likely in the 175- pound range. She had two healthy cubs that weighed six pounds each. Both cubs had a small white patch on their chest. I was able to take my 8-year-old son, Bear Newcomb, with me on this trip. As he held the bears I said, “Son, these aren’t just bears. These are Arkansas bears - and that's special."