The tracks were so fresh I expected to see their maker appear at any second.
Nearly as wide as my two hands combined and nearly as long as my foot there was no doubt these were left by a very large black bear.
I kept my camera ready as any encounter would be up close and personal.
In a remote area of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in northern California, I was at a stretch of river where huge boulders lined the shores, creating a rugged maze.
It was wall to wall granite with the ground being a mix of smaller rock and sand.
The tracks that ended at a huge flat outcropping led me close to the river. The view was stunning and I took time to savor the moment but my quarry remained elusive.
An hour later I found myself a few hundred yards above this location.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught slight movement.
Through the binoculars what looked at first like a bush turned out to be a black bear standing as if something had caught its attention too.
I am not sure if it was the same bear whose tracks I had followed.
Perhaps it had caught scent I left behind but one thing is for sure. The chill that ran down my spine at that moment reminded me of why I pursue wildlife and on this occasion wildlife might have very well been pursuing me.
After all, I was in this majestic animal’s domain.
Ursus americanus is the most abundant bear on the planet with an estimated 600,000 scattered throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico. They are a true wildlife conservation success story but not all is well.
Parts of their historic range are devoid of bear while some others are starting to see the first sign in decades.
My home state of Texas is a prime example.
Ursula americanus eremicus, the Mexican black bear, is protected from harvest in Mexico and over the last two decades they have been spilling into Texas from the Sierra Del Carmen Mountains.
Most of the population is centered around Big Bend National Park but there are verified bear sightings and road kills near Alpine and also as far east as Kerr County.
In fact, bear sightings in the Texas Hill Country have increased dramatically in recent years. One even paid fisheries biologists at the Heart of the Hills Hatchery near Ingram a visit-an area that hasn’t regularly had bear sightings in well over 100 years.
About 10 years ago, a man by the name of Al Weaver sent me a photo of a black bear he encountered while hog hunting with dogs.
The interesting part is that he was hog hunting near Bay City, TX in Matagorda County.
Bears inhabiting the Trans Pecos region near Big Bend National Park and slipping across the border from Louisiana and Arkansas into the Pineywoods are well documented but Bay City is far from these locations.
The dogs they were hunting with scared the bear into a tree and it was left alone while the hunt continued. The photo of this bear is above and as you can see it appears to be a a youngster.
It is most likely a male as young males will often travel far to start searching out mates but (male or female) how far did this one travel?
Lets say that bear entered Texas from Louisiana right at my home town of Orange coming across the Sabine River into the Blue Elbow Swamp which sits literally at the juncture of the Pineywoods and coastal marsh. This would also allow the closest access from Louisiana.
By car this is 155 miles which if you see the blue line would have the bear going through downtown Houston. That obviously did not happen. The straight path would lead it across the fifth largest bay system in the nation. That did not happen either.
The animal would have to at some point cross Interstate 10 or enter the wider spaces of the Sabine just south of Interstate 10 in Orange and maneuver through the coastal prairies, make its way around the Galveston Bay complex and down to Bay City.
What if the bear hailed from the Trans Pecos area-say somewhere near Big Bend in the Lajitas area? That’s a 651 mile drive for us and a 472 mile straight shot by air (or bear) covering all kinds of territory along the way from cities to hunting leases to wildlife refuges to international borders perhaps.
Some might argue this was a captive bear that was released but that is very unlikely. Another possibility this is an undocumented bear that was born somewhere in the middle perhaps in the Hill Country where sightings have spiked in recent years or even in the western Pineywoods or maybe along the coast somewhere.
Did you know there were bear hunting seasons as recently as the 1980s along the Texas coast? In my personal collection I have a hunting regulation book from 1979 that had a bear season in Chambers County and have seen others from subsequent years.
Were there really still a few bears along the coast at that time? Any scientific information is scant but it is an intriguing thought.
No matter where this bear came from its origins are interesting as they defy commonly held beliefs about bears in Texas.
This should serve as a reminder that nature still has plenty of surprises left and that bears can show up unexpectedly-even where no bears are known to roam.
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The unmistakable silhouette of a bull bison (Bison bison) caught my attention.
Enshrouded in a rainy mist, the curving horns, broad shoulders and massive hump were a perfect picture of nature’s strength.
Seeing bison, here in Yellowstone National Park was not surprising. After all it is the epicenter of their remaining wild range.
Seeing one near a mountain’s peak at nearly 10,000 feet elevation however was not expected.
I ventured on this particular range in search of bighorn sheep and instead found bison and in this case a rather large one.
The story of the bison in North America is a well-documented example of tragedy and triumph.
A government-subsidized push to slaughter them to remove the lifeblood of the plain’s tribes pushed through the 1800s like a freight train.
With deadly proficiency they decimated the herd from 30 million to an estimated 325.
My generation’s view of bison and their habitat mainly comes from the iconic film Dances with Wolves.
Besides introducing the Lakota word for bison”Tatanka” into the vernacular it also gave us the idea that American buffalo are a creature of the flat lands.
The Academy award-winning movie was filmed on plains in South Dakota and Wyoming.
After my Yellowstone encounter, I began looking at locations of wild bison herds and found many are in mountainous areas.
There is the Yellowstone herd that ventures into the high country and bison in the Henry Mountains and Book Cliffs in Utah and other adjoining ranges.
Native Americans used to drive the animals off of cliffs to kill them for food and other provision. Historians call these areas “buffalo jumps”.
The highest known site is at 11,000 feet in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains.
I never did find a bighorn on the trip but I had an incredible time seeing bison on the mountain and also in the valley below.
Before my time at Yellowstone was up, I saw a large herd of bison in the Lamar Valley. They were 3/4 of a mile away but I decided to shoot photos with my 400 mm lens anyway.
After a few shots, i decided to take out my Leupold 10X 42 binoculars and count the herd.
I counted 386.
That was more bison than existed in the United States at one point in the 1800s.
It was an emotional moment as it hit me we almost lost these great animals and that visionary hunter-conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt and the Boone & Crockett Club helped save Yellowstone by making it a national park and the bison contained within.
I am grateful we now have as many as 500,000 bison throughout North America and am inspired by plans to put wild herds back into their former range.
Thank God for the bison on the plains and on the mountains.
Chester Moore, Jr.
(NOTE: I will be attending Bison On the Edge, a conference in Santa Fe, NM Oct. 28-Nov. 2. It is hosted by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Pueblo of Pojoaque and will focus on bison restoration among other topics. Be on the lookout for reports from the event here at Higher Calling.)
An Instagram follower asked this after me posting about attending the 7th World Mountain Ungulates Conference in Bozeman, Mont.
And it is a good question.
Ungulate, after all, is sort of a strange word.
The quick explanation is an ungulate is an animal with hooves and a “mountain ungulate” is any of the variety of sheep, goats, deer and antelope that inhabit the hills and highlands of the world.
And Sept. 10-13 The Wild Sheep Foundation along with partners like Safari Club International Foundation brought together researchers from throughout North America and around the world to report on the latest findings and ponder questions of mountain ungulate management.
Researchers and managers from Mexico spoke of forward-thinking and effective desert bighorn sheep restoration in the state of Sonora. The Sierra El Alamo project spearheaded by landowner Javier Artee and family and The Wild Sheep Foundation has seen nearly 100 bighorns restored in a former hotbed for the species.
Tayler Lasharr from the University of Wyoming detailed a study on the issue on whether current harvest practices for bighorns are evolutionarily sustainable.
It was a hot topic of the event and was touched on in several presentations.
This particular study concluded that “…While harvest regimes are an important consideration, horn growth of harvested male mountain sheep has remained largely stable, indicating that evolutionary changes are an unlikely consequence of harvest in most of North America.”
Manzoor Qureshi of Gilgit, Pakistant presented “Trophy Hunting As Sustainable Use And Conservation Tool” and dealt specifically with markhor which are highly prized by hunters around the world.
It was noted hunters have paid upwards of $100,000 for markhor there and the country was also looking to build non-consumptive wildlife-based tourism from the presence of snow leopards and other wildlife.
The hunter’s claim that money from hunting goes back into local communities was questioned by some of the presenters during Q&A sessions.
And while no definitive answers were given, as to actual percentages that stay in villages and rural communities, anecdotally most conceded that hunter dollars were a boon to conservation and a barrier between wildlife and poachers.
Questions on equitable dispensation of hunter dollars remained.
Not all presenters dealt with hunting-centric issues.
Tal Halevy of Ben Gurion University of the Negeve in Israel for example spoke on Nubian ibex moving into cities and villages and becoming accustomed to people.
It was surprising to hear that more than half of the Nubian ibex population dwells in Israel and that these typically shy cliff-dwellers were showing an ability to adapt to populated areas.
Predation was a hot topic with an opening address focusing on changing behavior in North American wolves and their impact on wildlife and presentations addressing cougar and snow leopard predation on ungulates.
As would be expected, opinions in the room differed on predators but tempers never flared, although they might have sparkled a time or two.
Recapping the whole conference would be a foolish endeavor as it was simply too detailed and in-depth to give justice here.
My mission is to give my perspective as a wildlife journalist who is equally be at home with a rifle (or bow) in my hands as he is reporting on mountain ungulate management.
The following are my takeaways:
*Mountain sheep hunters in particular are serious about getting management right. They have no problem questioning management from a scientific level and are willing to adjust if necessary.
*On the same token, mountain sheep (and goat) hunters and related conservation organizations are the ones funding the vast majority of management of these species. There is little money in North American fish and wildlife departments to fund these initiatives, much less in poorer Asian countries. The current global hunting system is not perfect, but if it falls because of political pressure, mountain ungulate populations will suffer in many areas-greatly.
*Predator management in relation to ungulates will likely be the single greatest challenge facing the North American wildlife community. With the scandal that came with the “Cecil The Lion” story and a genuine ignorance on predators by the American public, dealing with increasing wolf numbers and cougars in particular will be a monumental challenge going forward.
*Genetics is opening a new level of understanding of these magnificent creatures. And it may very well be a key to saving them. An attempt in Washington to create a strain of domestic sheep free from diseases communicable to bighorns could help ease some conflicts between federal land grazers and wild sheep managers.
The 7th World Mountain Ungulates Conference was a remarkable event that brought together scientists, wildlife managers, landowners, conservationists, hunters and non-hunters.
It was a gathering that shows while there are many differences when it comes to wildlife of the highlands, there are talented people doing great things to us conserve them.
Seeing that long was worth the trip from Texas to Montana but of course seeing a grizzly sow with cubs in Yellowstone before the conference began wasn’t bad either.
Both inspired me to report more on the creatures that live in and around the mountains of the world.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 brought protected status to dozens of then-dwindling North American animals.
Among the first listings were the red wolf, black-footed ferret and ivory-billed woodpecker.
Had the ESA been established in 1900, the American bison would have been listed along with the wild turkey and pronghorn. All of those are game animals now hunted across multiple states with thriving populations.
“It is unprecedented to have so many species come back in such a big way and it has everything to do with the value put on those species and their habitat by hunter-conservationists like our founder Teddy Roosevelt,” said Keith Balfourd with the Boone & Crockett Club.
Since 1900 bison bounced back from 1,000 to 300,000 and wild turkeys went from 30,000 to nearly seven million.
Pronghorns which fell below 20,000 animals now number more than a million.
And it doesn’t stop there.
Whitetail would not have been listed as “endangered” but their population stood at only 500,000 throughout the continent. Now it’s 15,000,000.
Elk were down to 40,000 and now there are more than a million.
Contrast that with the ivory-billed woodpecker which is functionally extinct and the red wolf that exists only through a very small captive-bred introduced population in North Carolina and in various zoos and wildlife centers.
Some ESA-listed animals like the bald eagle have had huge success stories but the rise of game populations managed for hunting rarely gets mentioned in the corporate wildlife media.
One of the first actions of dedicated hunter Roosevelt and the Boone & Crockett Club was to push for the creation of Yellowstone National Park as it was one of the last intact ecosystems with abundant game.
“Roosevelt and the early proponents of Yellowstone faced many obstacles including mining, timber and railroad interests. But they prevailed and Yellowstone’s preservation made it possible to restore dwindling species to other areas,” Balfour said.
Elk from Yellowstone were transplanted to areas where they had been eliminated and so were bison.
As newly created game laws created protection for these animals their numbers began to multiply where they had been stocked. This quickly became the template for wildlife restoration in America.
The key reason for the wild turkey’s monumental increase was bringing excess birds from areas of abundance and releasing into zones with no birds. This practice continues today and has also been a cornerstone for the restoration of everything from bighorn sheep to gray wolves.
What Roosevelt, the early members of the Boone & Crockett Club and other early conservationists tapped into was that wildlife needed areas of sanctuary. And once you establish this, excess animals can be taken from there to areas of need.
To some it might seem ironic.
Hunters pushed for huge areas to be shut down to hunting and then helped create licensing systems that ensured hunting as restricted and managed by the government. On top of that they added licenses and excise taxes on sporting goods to fund conservation projects.
But these hunters knew without making sacrifices the animals they pursued would have been gone forever.
They were visionaries and the pioneering work they did gave hope that wildlife could continue to thrive in the face of growing human population and industrialization. It is not a perfect system but it works better than anything else on the planet thus far.
Many have had a hand in wildlife conservation in North America but few have had the impact of early hunter-conservationists like Roosevelt and the Boone & Crockett Club.
Their legacy lives on-in the woods, on the mountains and across the fruited plain.
The desert bighorn sheep is now officially a celebrity in Texas.
A new conservation license plate features a stunning bighorn image and those who purchase them for $30 get the satisfaction of knowing $22 goes directly to sheep conservation efforts of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD).
The new plate design is a first for TPWD.
“Our longtime plate artist, Clemente Guzman, retired, so we decided to use a photograph of a majestic Bighorn Sheep proudly looking into the desert—and perhaps its future,” said Janis Johnson with the TPWD Conservation License Plate program.
“We conducted an online survey with thousands of hunters and conservationists and had them rank several designs for a Bighorn Sheep plate and a Pronghorn plate. The Bighorn Sheep was the overwhelming favorite.”
Diehard hunters and wildlife enthusiasts know bighorns are native to Texas. The mainstream of those user groups however have no idea about Texas rich bighorn legacy and the amazing conservation efforts it took to get them back on the mountains of the Trans-Pecos.
Wild sheep have been a source of interest to me since I clipped out a statistics chart from a TPWD magazine during my childhood and put it in my dream hunt scrapbook.
I did so to serve as a reminder that we should always put in more than we take.
That graph showed 100 bighorns in Texas in 1928 and 40 in 1976, just a few years before I made this clipping.
For a six year old who was already knew about the Grand Slam of sheep this was frightening.
Now according to TPWD Desert Bighorn Program Leader Froylan Hernandez there are around, 1,500 which is at historical highs.
It will take a broader awareness of their presence in the arid Trans Pecos to support things like proper domestic sheep grazing practices so their diseases do not impact the easily infected bighorns.
This license plate along with the media blitz that has introduced it will go a long way and creating a path for bighorns to find their way into the mainstream Texas wildlife consciousness.
New generations must learn of these great animals and be inspired to help them.
Through our Kingdom Zoo Wildlife Center me and my wife Lisa work with children in the foster system and those with terminal illness and who have lost a parent or sibling. We give them the wildlife encounter of their dreams through our Wild Wishes program.
The license plate has given me a chance to integrate wild sheep conservation awareness into our programs.
When I showed a group of kids at foster children’s home e a monster set Gobi argali horns I asked them what type of animal they came from.
A couple said deer, while one said antelope.
Most of the others said it was a ram.
When told that a ram is a male of a particular kind of animal none of them knew it was a sheep.
Several expectedly thought rams were male goats. (This seems to be a common belief-even among adults.)
When I told them we had wild rams in Texas in the form of the desert bighorn sheep they lit up. And they thought it was even cooler that we will have a special conservation license plate to help them.
That’s just a tiny example of the kind of conversations the new license plate will generate.
Impactful conservation takes awareness, money and creativity and all of those are present in this project.
In the long run the bighorns of Texas will benefit greatly from this small step toward the mainstream.
Wild sheep have a deep personal meaning in my life dating back to early childhood when I would sit with my Dad and cut out photos of wildlife from Sports Afield,Field & Stream and Outdoor Life and place them in a scrapbook.
Wild sheep and wild turkeys were my favorites.
Dad passed away of natural causes on a hunting trip with me five years ago but the memories of sitting in his lap and clipping out those photos will never fade.
A recent discovery of one of these scrapbooks in a storage vault brought back a flood of emotions and reminded me that a love of wild sheep has been with me my whole life. Check out the podcast which is from one of the best radio broadcasts in “Moore Outdoors” 20 year history.
Listen to learn about wild sheep of the world and to be inspired by their amazing conservation story.
Chester Moore, Jr.
The Inspirational Voice Of Mountain & Forest Wildlife Conservation