CORVALLIS, Ore. - Black bears are one of the success stories in public acceptance of large carnivores, and a new survey of people in East Texas has found that - like in many other places - this species native to most forested areas of North America is generally welcome.
Black bears, once common in this large, 12-county region of Texas, were largely eliminated in the past century due to overhunting and habitat loss. But the study, published in the journal Environmental Management, found that if black bears are allowed to repopulate the area naturally, the level of public acceptance may be fairly high.
Unlike some other carnivorous species that have caused more public debate, such as cougars and wolves, people seem to accept black bears. They have been able to maintain stable populations in many states and recover in others, experts say.
"There are still concerns of some types, and a need for public outreach about living around them, but people seem to like black bears," said Anita Morzillo, an assistant professor in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University. "They seem to have more of a humanistic quality than some other large predators, are more common overall around the country, and are seen as intelligent and appealing."
Efforts to recover black bear populations in Louisiana have occurred in recent years, and black bears are now moving into East Texas from neighboring states. This survey of about 1,000 people found that if that process is allowed to occur naturally, most respondents said they would be supportive. There were some concerns about personal safety and livestock attacks, and more than a few people worried about black bears getting into garbage or causing property damage.
Some older residents, who recall nuisance conflicts with black bears when there were still some around in East Texas decades ago, also had more reservations. Men, younger respondents, and those who liked to get outdoors and appreciate natural phenomena were among those more likely to favor the return of black bears. Many agreed that "bears have a right to exist wherever they may occur." And support increased when they were told that management plans would work to reduce bear-human conflicts.
"Overall, people think it would be fun to see black bears on occasion, and show them to their kids," Morzillo said. "And results from our study suggest that there is better support for the process if it occurs naturally, instead of with humans bringing black bears into the area."
Black bears can exist fairly easily near human populations, Morzillo said, and have even wandered into urban areas. Like their larger relatives, the grizzly bear, black bear assaults on humans are extraordinarily rare. And they are native to almost every forested area of the United States, feeding largely as a vegetarian and serving a natural role as a seed disperser in ecosystems.
When black bear populations build up to stable levels in an area, they can also form the basis for controlled hunting opportunities.
With the recent widespread interest in restoring more large carnivore populations to their native status, Morzillo said, more research such as this can help determine public attitudes and form the basis for outreach programs.
"Public accountability is an important component," the researchers wrote in their report. "It is apparent that any successful large carnivore recovery depends on public tolerance of a particular species, for some local residents may experience regular contact with it."
Click photos to see a full-size version. Right click and save image to download.
Anita Morzillo, 541-737-8433