A Return to the Bear State

The growing bear population means new opportunities for hunters

By: Clay Newcomb   Photography: Clay Newcomb

Author Clay Newcomb and his son, Bear, stand over a bear harvested in Polk County. Estimated to weigh over 500 pounds, the “color phase” bear was officially scored at 19 11/16”.

Author Clay Newcomb and his son, Bear, stand over a bear harvested in Polk County. Estimated to weigh over 500 pounds, the “color phase” bear was officially scored at 19 11/16”.

 
 

It’s hard to celebrate something if you don’t understand why it needs to be celebrated. But the return of a thriving bear population to Arkansas is big news for anyone who cares about our state’s reputation. How can a place be known as “wild” if it doesn’t have bears? Bears are the icon of American wilderness and adventure hunting. The presence of big omnivores indicates a thriving and healthy ecosystem. 

The wild places of Arkansas gained national recognition in the 1800s because of the tales of bear hunters, effectively branding our state. These stories embedded into the American culture ideas about Arkansas that have withstood the test of time. In 1854, Thomas Thorpe wrote an article titled “The Big Bear of Arkansas” which was published in multiple national papers, including the “Spirit of The Times” published in New York City. In the story, a colorful Arkansas native speaks of giant bears and epic bear hunts in the Delta. The city folk back East were fascinated with our state. 

Today, black bears are increasing in number and geographical range in Arkansas. Once limited to the Ouachitas, Ozarks and lower White River drainage, bears are expanding in every direction from these hubs. Southern Missouri now has a breeding population of bears. Oklahoma now has a huntable and rapidly growing population of bruins. Northern Louisiana has taken black bears off the endangered species list. Mississippi is studying its growing bear population along the Mississippi River. In each case, these bears emigrated out of Arkansas—and, might I add, this expansion has coincided with increased hunting. Arkansas hunters have killed over 400 bears since 2001 when the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission first allowed baiting on private lands. Using very conservative figures, an estimated 5,000 bears roam our state.  

An Estimated 5,000 bears roam our state

We’ve got some big bears in Arkansas. It’s not uncommon for hunters to harvest bears that weigh over 500 pounds, with some bears topping 600 pounds. Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of Arkansas bears is the genetic variation known as “color phase.” Not all Arkansas black bears are black—many are chocolate brown or reddish cinnamon. In the Western United States this is common, but to be this far east and still have a high percentage of color phase is unique.  Bears that live in open terrain are more likely to be color phase (like the Western U.S.), while bears living in dense forest are usually all black (like the Eastern U.S.). Arkansas bears are between 10 and 20 percent color phase. 

With abundant summer rainfall and good hard and soft mast crops throughout most of the state, bear hunting could be tough in 2016-17. When food is readily available, bears are spread out and don’t respond well to bait. Don’t let that keep you out of the bear woods, but hunting, as usual, might be a challenge. Bear season starts in Zone 1 and 2 on Sept. 24 and runs through November (unless the Zone 1 quota is met). 

CLAY’S PICKS
Arkansas’ mountain regions are teeming with bears, both in the Ouachita National Forest and Madison, Crawford, Franklin, Pope and Newton Counties in the Ozarks.