by Clay Newcomb
“Is her head up?” asked Myron Means, the Large Carnivore Coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC). His is assistant, Alex, replied, “Yep, she’s looking right at me.” He had just crept into a sow bear’s den and shot her with a tranquilizer dart. Waiting for her to be completely sedated by the drug, we sat outside the den and talked bears. I’m always amazed how the sow is always fully awake when you approach the den, often staring right at you from five feet away. Seems like she wouldn’t be happy about you being there.
In route to the bear den we crossed through a beautiful beech valley in Johnson County, Arkansas.
I love Arkansas bears because they represent something that most non-hunters don’t understand – that hunters are the real heroes of conservation. The reintroduction of bears into Arkansas is considered by biologists worldwide to be the most successful reintroduction of large carnivores in the world. Reintroduction means full-grown wild animals were trapped in one region and relocated into another.
AGFC Bear Coordinator, Myron Means, crawls in the bear den, face to face, with the sow.
In the 1950s and 60s, the AGFC traded bass and wild turkey for black bears from Minnesota and a Canadian province. Over the course of 10 years, they trapped and relocated 254 black bears. They drove them over 1,000 miles in pickup trucks with wire cages and turned them lose in three areas in Arkansas’ rugged Ozark and Ouachita mountains. The bulk of our current population of around 5,000 bears are descendants of these relocated bruins.
Holding a bear cub is an amazing experience that gives you nothing but respect for black bears.
The bear that we had just tranquilized was named Sally and she’s been collared for two years. She is one of about 60 bears that Myron and his Bear Team have radio collared in Arkansas. Every year a pilot hired by the AGFC flies and locates the exact coordinates of all the sows. The team then goes in and checks all the dens, taking a sample of the reproduction efforts of the population. These figures are used to estimate reproduction and are later used to set the hunting season dates and quotas.
A bear den study is a fantastic for the kids, creating a lifetime memory.
In Arkansas, sows typically become sexually mature at four years old and on average have two cubs per litter. A sow that lives 20 years has 16 years of productivity. If she has cubs every other year, she’ll raise about 16 cubs. That might sound like a lot until you compare the reproduction numbers with deer and other species. Bear’s reproduction rates are very low. Measurements of the cubs are taken the overall health of the cubs are noted. The length of the hair of the cub is measured and can be used to determine the approximate time of birth of the cub.
Myron with a cub.
As the director of the Arkansas Black Bear Association, I was able to go on this trip along with my nine-year old son. Every year the AGFC donates a trip to help our 501C3 association raise money (www.arbear.org). We do a silent online auction for a four-person trip and this year a high school teacher acquired the trip and decided to take three of his students with him. We had a fantastic time, and as always, I enjoy being around people that appreciate bears.
Black bears are a valuable and amazing wildlife resource in North America. I love to hunt bears and will never apologize for that, but before we can hunt them we’ve got to have a strong, stable population. Conservation is a vital and integral part of the hunting equation. Previous generations of hunters and conservationists in Arkansas have made it possible for us to have such abundant game populations and vast hunting opportunity – for this I am grateful.