Black bears are reclaiming lost TX territory

December 10, 2009 4:56:00 PM PST
Ray Hernandez was checking for oil at a pump jack this summer on a vast stretch of ranchland in Menard County when his cell phone rang. It was a well worker at a pipe yard on the property, insisting he'd seen a bear.

"I said, No, you didn't, you seen a stump, " Hernandez said. "And actually, there's a stump there that looks just like a bear."

In fact, the worker had seen a bear. And the June 23 sighting escalated swiftly into a bear hunt.

It ended with the crack of a rifle, a felled beast and a criminal charge against Hernandez, a self-identified Tonkawa Indian who did not fire the shot but decapitated the state-protected creature with a hacksaw and ferried home its head and paws.

His initial incredulity, however, was justified.

The black bear that wandered onto the Central Texas cattle ranch that day is the first ever confirmed in that part of the state, according to Capt. Alan Teague, a game warden with Texas Parks and Wildlife.

For Teague and others at the agency, it's further proof that the species is reclaiming lost territory.

Black bears roamed every ecosystem in Texas two centuries ago. Then settlers arrived, altering habitat, hunting bears to protect livestock and killing the creatures for sport.

A Liberty County judge reputedly slaughtered 200 bears in the late 19th century, a pursuit that earned Lewis Hightower the handle "the Bear-Hunting Judge," according to the Handbook of Texas Online.

"I practice law for recreation," Hightower would say, "and hunt bear for a livin'."

By the 1950s, black bears were eradicated from Texas, experts say.

The state made bear hunting illegal in 1983. That decade, the creatures began crossing from northern Mexico into the southern reaches of West Texas.

For the past 15 years, a small population has bred there, mostly in the region's rugged mountains.

But bears in Texas recently have been on the move, staging an unprecedented return to regions such as the Edwards Plateau, Piney Woods and South Texas Plains, according to Nathan Garner, a biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Texas lists the black bear as threatened. The penalty for shooting one is a Class C misdemeanor and a fine of $500, plus a civil restitution of $11,907.50.

Reasons for bears forging deep into new territory are more varied.

Teague, the game warden, cites the recent severe drought as a likely motivator.

Garner, the biologist, says bear populations in Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma are expanding into eastern regions of Texas.

And bears in Mexico now are protected, so the population there is spilling into Texas, where many landowners have switched from raising sheep and goats to cattle, said Ruben Cantu, a TPWD regional director in San Angelo.

Game wardens investigate all killings, although there are limitations to the law.

"A landowner does have a right to protect his livestock" and human life, said Clint Graham, a game warden. But the state prefers to trap and relocate animals that are a threat, he said.

Pursuing a false rumor that Hernandez had shot the bear, investigators first went to his home, a rented bungalow in south Menard County.

The self-styled Indian decorates the house with painted animal skulls and collects American Indian accoutrements, including a sheepskin loincloth, elk hide boots and a medicine bag made from a muskrat.

Investigators that day also found a rotting bear's head on a red ant mound and four bear paws in a sack inside an abandoned car.

Hernandez said he hoped the ants would "carnage on the meat, the hair and all that. They were really getting after it."

He said he planned to pull the bear's teeth from its skull and add them to a choker that already contains the teeth of a wolf and the claws of a mountain lion.

With those bones and five eagle feathers he says his grandmother left him, Hernandez believes the bear would have imbued him with an accumulated vigor.

"That was the completion," he said. "That had been my medicine. The bear would have filled a realm, the spiritual realm."

Instead, investigators confiscated the head and paws as evidence and hauled Hernandez to Menard County Jail.

Hernandez was charged with possession of threatened species parts and fined $500.


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