Arkansas has reached a new landmark in the return of black bears, according to Arkansas Game and Fish Commissioner Austin Booth after the AGFC recently GPS collared a bear for the first time ever. Black bears have experienced a major rebound in Arkansas, finally reaching healthy levels in recent years – so healthy that the AGFC has approved a bear hunting season in South Arkansas for the first time since their reintroduction to the state.
In the early 1800s, Arkansas had an unofficial reputation not as the Natural State, but as the Bear State. It is estimated that the number of black bears in Arkansas may have been as high as 50,000 before major European settlement in the region, ranging from the Ozarks down to the Mississippi Delta. As a territory, Arkansas gained a reputation as a hunter’s paradise, drawing hunters from both home and abroad, eager to test their manhood. Such a reputation was not exactly healthy for the bears, however, and their number declined sharply as their habitats were replaced by farmland and hunters killed them for their meat, fat, and hide. By 1928, the AGFC, which was at that time just thirteen years old, reported that there were only twenty-five black bears left.
Although bear hunting was banned, the remaining population of bears was simply too small to produce any significant growth; by the early 1950s, there were still only about fifty in the entire state. To solve this problem, the AGFC worked out a trade: give bass and wild turkeys to Minnesota and Manitoba in exchange for bears. Beginning in 1958, the AGFC released 256 black bears into the forests and mountains of Arkansas, all without actually telling the public. As a result, the new bear population remained unbothered, allowing an explosion in their numbers.
Estimates in recent years put the black bear population somewhere between three and five thousand, and the AGFC’s new program of GPS collaring them will reveal an unprecedented amount of new information to help understand and manage these animals. Unfortunately, properly reclaiming the title of the Bear State may be somewhat difficult, as Alaska has approximately 100,000 bears and other states have tens of thousands. Nevertheless, it is a great thing to help restore, protect, and understand such an important part of the Natural State.