Drew Porto spent 30 days replenishing bait on a stretch of private land in the Ozarks before his first black bear season. He and a buddy tweaked the bait every day or two, using dog food mixed with different amounts of grease before discovering the sweet spot of expired pastries from the local grocery stores.
“One of the worst things you can do is let the bait barrel go dry,” he says.
And in the Ozarks of Arkansas, it’s easy for a bear bait barrel to go empty. Biologists estimate between 5,000 and 6,000 bears live in the state right now, many of them in the Ozark and Ouachita ranges.
He watched one day on a trail camera as a mother and three cubs emptied the barrel in a matter of hours. By the time the first day of the season rolled around, he was ready.
A boar came in shortly after Porto had climbed up into his treestand. He watched as the bear ate for an hour or two, taking pictures and hoping to get enough service to text his friend, Arkansas large carnivore biologist Myron Means, to see if the bear was a shooter.
Means finally got back that he should take it, and he did just that, making a good shot with his bow. Two years later, he didn’t need to ask if the bear was big enough at 265 pounds. It clearly was. He killed that bear with a bow as well.
Porto is one of thousands of hunters in Arkansas who tag upwards of 500 bears a year from a black bear population that continues to expand. While animal rights activist generally hate the idea of black bear hunting, most biologists, wildlife managers, and researchers say it is one of the best ways to manage social tolerance of growing populations. And black bear populations in the Heartland certainly are growing.
“Our reintroduction effort is still considered the most successful reintroduction of a large carnivore in the history of any reintroduction effort,” Means says. “We sing that from the rooftops. … We brought them [back to most of] their historical range throughout the state and were able to have successful hunting seasons and meaningful hunting seasons.”
The black bear comeback in states like Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Florida has been nothing short of astounding. Numbers went from isolated, tiny populations hidden away—if any existed at all—to thousands of bears in each state. Biologists credit a combination of habitat improvement and careful management. The result is expanding hunting seasons in states like Arkansas, and the first modern black bear hunting season in Missouri.
Each state’s story is a little bit different, but most biologists agree that with improved habitat will come more bears, and more opportunities for hunters like Porto.
“The general consensus is that these states’ bear populations continue to expand,” Means says. “Do I think more bear hunting opportunities will come up across the east and southeast? Yes, I do, and Arkansas is a perfect example.”
A History of Bear Oil, Deforestation, and Declining Bear Populations
No one knows for sure, but historical estimates guess that 50,000 black bears likely lived in the state of Arkansas alone before European settlers moved in. The state was covered from border to border with trees.
“You can imagine, at the time of settlement, Arkansas was basically a forested state,” Means says.
The uplands were covered in oak, hickory, and hardwood, and even the Gulf Coastal Plain and Delta were draped in bottomland hardwood.
“There wasn’t much of the state that wasn’t bear habitat.”
But those trees had value, and the ground underneath them provided land for housing development and agriculture. In a matter of decades, Arkansas went from heavily forested to heavily deforested.
At the same time, bears faced intense market hunting, largely for their fat.
“The primary source of oil back in the days were whale blubber or bear fat,” he says. “And what better place to get oil for lamps and heating and lighting and everything else than the Bear State?”
Entire communities popped up around killing bears for fat. A town called Oil Trough in the eastern portion of the state was established to render bear fat down. They filled huge vats with fat, sent it on wooden troughs through town, and then poured it into massive wooden barrels, loaded onto barges, and sent down the White River to the Mississippi and Point of New Orleans then sailed all over the world.
By the mid-1950s, between overharvest and loss of habitat, those 50,000 bears dropped down to about 50. They lived in the lower White River drainage, a hard-to-access corner of the state that served as a refuge for the remaining creatures.
The story played out similarly in many other eastern and southeastern states, where bears were targeted for food, furs, and fat. They were also killed because of the threats they posed to livestock and agricultural fields.
“It was estimated black bears were extirpated from Missouri by the early 1900s,” says Laura Conlee, terrestrial section chief with the Missouri Department of Conservation. “A small number may have hung on in the Ozarks, but functionally speaking people weren’t seeing bears.”
The Black Bear Comeback
Arkansas wildlife managers decided in in the late 1950s that the state had enough habitat to bring back black bears. Forests regrew in the Ozarks and Ouachita with oak, hickory, pine, and upland forest.
So between 1958 and 1968, biologists reintroduced 254 black bears captured in Minnesota and Manitoba and released them in the two mountain ranges. The population flourished.
“It was like the old movie ‘Field of Dreams,’” Means says. “If you build it, they will come.”
Bear numbers expanded so much, in fact, that Arkansas started its first bear hunting season in 1980.
The hunt began conservatively, just in the mountainous zones with low harvest numbers, a late season structure meant to target males, and no dogs or baiting allowed. The hunting season stayed like that for about 20 years before populations reached a point that they were only harvesting about 10 percent, and bear numbers were expanding by about 12 to 15 percent.
So in 2001, wildlife managers allowed hunters to use bait on private land and now, about 20 years later, the state plans to expand bear hunts for the first time into the Gulf Coastal Plain. The state estimates it has between 5,000 and 6,000 bears, and hunters kill about 500 each year.
Because wildlife don’t live by state boundaries, the expansion of bears in Arkansas meant a similar expansion in nearby states.
Missouri, for example, shares the Ozarks and Ouachita mountains with Arkansas. Its population also began to expand as black bears in Arkansas looked for unoccupied range. Conlee estimates about 800 black bears now live in the southern third of the state.
As bear numbers grew, and forested habitat expanded and matured, the state held off opening a bear hunt. But in 2008, wildlife managers set a benchmark based on years of intense population monitoring that detailed when a hunting season could begin.
In 2021, the state approved the first hunting season quota. And like Missouri’s first hunt more than 40 years ago, it was conservative.
“It was spot and stalk, no bait, no dogs,” Conlee says. “We put zone-specific harvest quotas in each bear management zone so if they were reached the season would be shut off.”
Hunters had 400 total permits and 10 days to reach a quota of 40 bears. The season closed after that 10-day period with a harvest of 12 bears.
“It was great,” Conlee says. “Hunters were able to have success even with those conservative methods.”
This year’s season quotas will be similar, she says.
Oklahoma has been hunting bears in the southeast corner of the state and will likely open hunting in the northeast portion in the next handful of years, Means says.
Mississippi doesn’t have a season yet. Neither does Louisiana, because the state’s black bear population is a unique sub-species that was only recently taken off the endangered species list.
Then there’s North Carolina, which never stopped hunting black bears, and estimates about 20,000 currently live in the state. In 2020, hunters killed a record 3,748 black bears there.
Black Bear Management a Model for Success
Most bear managers recognize that with stable populations like those in Missouri, Florida, and Arkansas, opening hunting seasons often depends more upon social tolerance than it does bear biology.
Even the International Association for Bear Research Management, a global organization of professional biologists and wildlife managers, wrote in a 2017 position paper that: “Regulated hunting is an effective tool that is widely used to manage, conserve, and sustain black bear populations, which is supported by the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.”
So why have states like Arkansas, Missouri, and North Carolina allowed for increased hunting opportunities while the anti-hunting debate has continued in states like Florida and California?
Part of it is the state’s hunting culture, Means says. Arkansas and Missouri have always valued hunters and honored hunting as a form of recreation and way to sustainably manage populations.
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Nate Bowerstock, Missouri’s bear biologist, also wonders if it’s because of Missouri’s conservative approach to its first season.
“State to state, how the managing agencies approach these situations or make their management decisions, some are more aggressive than others,” he says. “and sometimes… and how aggressive you are with your hunt can make it more contentious.”
Some animal rights groups like the Humane Society of the U.S. will argue that hunts are inhumane and unnecessary. In some states, like Florida, they argued that the basis for the hunt was unscientific.
On the flip side, some hunters and landowners argue there isn’t enough opportunity. Porto says some avid deer hunters are frustrated when black bears raid their corn feeders set out to bait deer. But hunt seasons, and particularly predator hunts, will never appease everyone.
And in the meantime, bears will likely continue expanding as they find habitat and social tolerance.
They won’t occupy the same area in the same numbers they did before Europeans arrived, Means says. They historically ranged across all forested regions of the continent from Alaska into Mexico and the west to east coasts.
“States like Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska will never have [large bear populations], not unless they start converting cropland to forest,” Means says.
But there’s still plenty of room for expansion in the available habitat. And hunting, many wildlife managers argue, is a good way to help build tolerance for the creatures.
Black bears are even faring well in the face of climate change, Means says, though he and other bear biologists worry about a disease called Sarcoptic mange infecting black bears across the southeast. The disease causes hair loss and, at its worst, emaciation and eventual death. Some bears can recover, but biologists want to increase testing and surveillance to ensure it doesn’t have an outsized impact. It showed up in Arkansas about four years ago, and no one knows how it arrived in the southeast.
Hunters like Porto welcome the news that bears are expanding their range and numbers. He and his wife prefer bear meat to deer, and if he could, he would use it to fill his freezer each year.
“We’ve stood on the grounds of good bear management for the last 60 years,” Means says, “and we continue to stand on those grounds as a conservation agency.”