We will have more on that in a special report soon.
Until then my close friend and research partner Todd Jurasek got some incredible game camera videos of black bears in the Kiamichi Mountains in Southeastern Oklahoma, showing the Sooner State has a burgeoning bear population in some areas.
People in states that have had large bear populations for decades like Oregon, Montana, and Alaska understand these animals but all forest-loving Americans need to become bear aware and realize these apex animals are increasing in the southern and eastern portions of the country.
Enjoy these awesome clips. This is just the beginning of an epic summer of bear coverage from around the globe.
For the second time in less than a week, officials with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD have released a statement on increased bear activity in the state. The last one as reported here involved sightings in the Trans Pecos.
The new reports are from Northeast Texas along the Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana borders.
Since April, there has been an uptick in black bear sightings in Bowie, Grayson and Titus counties in northeast Texas. The bears are thought to originate from the neighboring states of Oklahoma and Arkansas, or possibly Louisiana, where resident bear populations are well established and expanding. As the numbers of this iconic species grows, dispersing black bears find their way across state lines into Texas, signaling the possibility of its eventual permanent return to our landscape.
“It is inspiring as a biologist to watch these animals make their return to Northeast Texas after being absent for a century or more,” said Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) biologist, Penny Wilkerson.
“Bears do not generally pose a threat to pets or livestock. These critters are omnivores and are more interested in berries, grubs, and acorns than anything else,” Wilkerson said.
The last time TPWD sent out a press release regarding black bears was 2017 and there was another in 2016. Before that, the last release was in 2012.
For TPWD to send out two releases in a week shows there is a major change in bear activity and likely some kind of bear emphasis coming from the department.
The lack of activity in the woods, state parks, and wildlife management areas due to COVID-19 this spring has in my opinion given bears a little more leeway in the woods and emboldened the animals in areas where they have been lurking in the shadows for a number of years.
A recent report from just across the border in Oklahoma shows landowners frustrated with the amount of bear activity. And one of my research partners Todd Jurasek got numerous bears including a 400 plus pound bruin on video in the Kiamichi Mountains along the Texas-Oklahoma corridor.
I will be posting those videos soon along with a massive update on bear sightings by county in Texas.
“There has been a flurry of bear activity in the Trans-Pecos recently. Reports of black bears wandering into Fort Davis, Alpine, and Fort Stockton were received this past week on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, respectively,” said Michael Janis, TPWD Trans-Pecos District Leader.
Black bears are generally shy, reclusive creatures but there comes a point when populations grow when that can change.
There is no hunting pressure in Texas and Mexico so there is no reason to fear people. In these situations, they may begin approaching human habitations and dry conditions like west Texas is facing now will amplify the issue.
My concern is Texans are not bear aware.
To most encountering bears is something that might happen once-in-a-lifetime when they visit Yellowstone or in the Smoky Mountains.
And these Texas bears are not just in the Trans Pecos.
For more than a decade I have recorded sightings in the Hill Country, South Texas, and along the Middle Coast. The East Texas bear population is a different issue and we will touch more on that next week but there are increasing sightings in the eastern third of the state as well.
Texans need to understand a few things about these unexpected inhabitants of its wildlands.
The following is from TPWD.
Bears have an excellent sense of smell and much of their behavior is driven by their appetite. These natural characteristics can, however, become a problem when bears find an easy meal from a human-related source such as garbage, pet food or corn from a deer feeder. If over time a bear continually finds food around humans, it can become habituated, losing its fear of people and creating a potentially dangerous situation.
Fellow hunters, we are now in the off-season. If you have a bear hitting a feeder, a good option is to shut it down and let the bear move on. Feeding in an area might keep the bear around and give you problems with your feeder (they’ll tear it up) or maybe an unwanted up close and personal encounter.
Another option is electricity.
Bears are sensitive to electricity however, so electric fences can be used to prevent bears from accessing feeders while still allowing deer to reach them because of their ability to jump the fence. Although an added cost, electric fencing can pay for itself in the prevention of lost feed and damage to a feeder.
TPWD biologists say education is the best way to prevent human-bear conflicts
Residents in areas where bears have been spotted should secure anything that could be a potential attractant (e.g. garbage, pet food, bird and deer feeders, etc.). Residents can also choose to invest in bear proof garbage dumpsters, a recourse that many communities in the western U.S. have deployed to reduce or prevent bear encounters. Double-bagging garbage to reduce odors and keeping bags in a secure location until the morning of trash pickup are also encouraged practices. Similarly, TPWD biologists recommend feeding pets inside or limiting pet food portions to an amount that can be consumed completely at each feeding.
Black bears are potentially dangerous animals. And while they are not likely to attack, their ferocity upon attack can be fatal.
In a story in the March/April 2020 edition of Sports Afield, I outlined a surprising study on black bear attack behavior.
A study published in The Journal of Wildlife Management documents 63 people killed in 59 incidents by non-captive black bears between 1900-2009.
Here is the standout quote.
“We judged that the bear involved acted as a predator in 88 percent of fatal incidents. Adult or subadult male bears were involved in 92 percent of fatal predatory incidents, reflecting biological and behavioral differences between male and female bears. That most fatal black bear attacks were predatory and were carried out by one bear shows that females with young are not the most dangerous black bears.”
There are a couple of things that should jump out at outdoor lovers here.
If you are attacked by a black bear you must fight back. While many grizzly attacks are territorial or perhaps because the grizzly didn’t like you way you looked that day, most black bear attacks are predatory and nearly all of the fatal ones are. Play dead for grizzlies. Fight like crazy against a black bear.
Big male bears are the biggest threat. If you see one in an area or have game camera photos of one, take extra precautions.
Black bears are protected in Texas, so hunters should keep that in mind and especially when hunting hogs in areas with bear sightings at night. A bear could easily look like a hog hitting a bait pile especially if you are using night vision or thermal imaging.
Black bears returning to Texas is exciting but everyone needs to stay informed. I will continue coverage here as the great American bear returns to the Lone Star State and shows up in places where few expect to see them.
(TPWD is requesting bear sighting information. Click here to find a biologist in your area. Email email@example.com to send bear photos and videos.)
Oh beautiful for spacious skies for amber waves of grain.
I’ll never forget sitting alone on a rock on a distant hill in South Dakota watching the northern lights as a pack of coyotes sang in the distance. The skies were truly spacious and grain plentiful as I ended a long day of pheasant hunting with friends.
For purple mountain’s majesty. Above the fruited plain.
Just as the sun rose above the Montana mountains, I could finally understand the lyric “purple mountain’s majesty” as one of the peaks in the distance had a light purple hue. It was a special moment because in the plain below, just in front of me were two pronghorn bucks in an intense battle, almost as if to say, “I’ll be the king of this majestic scene.”
Oh, America how God truly shed His grace on thee, even before anyone other than the Creator Himself set foot here you were special.
And I have been exceedingly blessed to see so much of your beauty.
From the incredible pink dolphin that graced our presence on the Louisiana coastline to the hundreds of thousands of ducks and geese I have seen in those marshes.
From the Rocky Mountain bighorn I photographed at 12,000 feet in Colorado to the big eastern gobbler I bagged in the rolling hills of New York.
And Texas, our Texas, oh hail my home state.
From the big bucks of the Pineywoods to the ocelots in the valley to the clear streams of the Hill Country and the mule deer of the west. You are incredible.
America was not chosen by First Nations people or European settlers because it was a big chunk of land. It was because of abundant timber, water and wildlife. America’s very greatness is tied to its wildness.
Naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote that, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
And while the exact intent of Thoreau’s quote has been debated since he wrote it, there is no question America without wilderness is not America at all.
And the further we get from the roots our ancestors planted, the further off track we’ve become. There are agendas on top of agendas for destruction of this nation. To plunder it To control it. To manipulate it and confuse.
There are so many voices demanding our attention, it is crucial that all hunters, anglers, hikers, campers and wildlife lovers go out into the wild for clarity.
I just returned from a remote area of Texas and at one point found myself in crystal clear water, surrounded by stunning limestone cliffs and there was no one around. Even my fishing partners were about 1/2 mile away and it was just me, God and His creation.
There was no one telling me who to be angry with. There was no one demanding political affiliation, holding a sign or fighting.
America looked quite beautiful from here and I suspect on my coming trip to Alaska it will be just as majestic. As I seek to photograph Dall sheep, the only intent will be to capture one of the Lord’s finest creations to share with the world so others can care about their existence.
When I have been on wild turkey releases, bighorn captures, bay cleanups and stream enhancement projects there has been only one true agenda. To keep America wild and ensure what our forefathers no matter where they came from first marveled over when reaching the country remains.
Don’t let anyone tell you America is not beautiful anymore.
Don’t let anyone tell the nation is not worthy of adoration. I have ventured from sea to shining sea and feel blessed I was born here to experience the wild things that inhabit our woodlands, waterways, mountains, prairies, marshes, deserts and tundra.
Politics and media manipulation enter the woods only if you bring it.
It’s time to go beyond the pavement, into the wild and thank God for shining His most creative blessings on the United States of America and its wild lands.
In January 2019, I had an incredible experience while praying.
The Lord impressed two words upon me-“Higher Calling”.
I could feel the weight and depth of it in my bones as I knew a significant shift was coming to my life. It was one of those few times where I knew the Lord had a message for me to unravel.
Some say He no longer communicates with people but Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice”. (John 10:27)
And in this case, the significance of sheep cannot be overstated.
That prayer time began a journey of soul-searching and a path back toward the very beginnings of my career as a wildlife journalist and even younger.
For starters I knew the Lord wanted me to dedicate more time to Him, studying His word and praying. That was first.
But there was more.
I love pretty much all aspects of fishing, hunting, and wildlife but if someone had given me a chance to do anything I wanted at 19 years of age when this journey began I would have pursued the wildlife of the mountains and forests.
I’ve always written about it but when paying opportunities came in other areas of the outdoors industry, I went where chances to make a living came.
Very much of that for me was in the Gulf coast fishing boom of the 1990s and early 2000s. I have loved coastal fishing my whole life so it was natural for me.
But my deepest love has always been mountain and forest wildlife.
So, last year I decided to put all career time outside of what I do at Texas Fish & Game toward writing about and advancing the cause of the conservation of mountain and forest wildlife. That is why this blog exists and the Higher Calling podcast and it has expanded into articles in numerous national and regional publications.
By discerning the two words “Higher Calling”, a new purpose was birthed into my writing and broadcasting and an epic year ensued.
I went from having never photographed bighorn sheep to photographing them in four different states. I went having only hunted and photographed Rio Grande turkeys to photographing the Grand Slam of the four major subspecies all in 2019.
And I managed to bag a big eastern gobbler in New York in the process.
In the fall of last year, we started a new outreach of our ministry called Higher Calling Wild Wishes Expeditions which has the goal of taking kids in our Wild Wishes program into mountain regions to train them to be wildlife conservationists. Wild Wishes grants wildlife encounters to children with a critical illness or loss of a parent or sibling.
Plans were on tap for Central Texas, Colorado, and Montana.
Then COVID-19 came.
The Colorado trip has been at the very least postponed.
Montana is still up in the air and we will probably pull off the Texas trip. But it has been disheartening as we had some special teens lined up for some incredible opportunities that are shaky at best now.
People can say what they want about the coronavirus but at the time of this writing there were more than 60,000 people dead from it in the United States alone and economic depression looms like vultures circling a carcass.
It’s pretty ugly out there.
But I remain hopeful.
I am a follower of Jesus Christ. That means I believe in His virgin birth, death, burial, and resurrection.
And although I fail more often than I would like to admit, I try to follow his teachings and example. It’s why Lisa and I work so hard to help children going through illness and trauma.
And since I believe in a supernatural God, I believe supernatural things can happen. I believe in healings. I believe in deliverance and I believe in hope that we can have great lives despite the chaos.
I was a little boy from a lower-middle-income home who grew up in the oil industry bust of the late 70s/early 80s. We could barely afford to hunt in East Texas near our home much less pursue the great wildlife of the mountains.
My Dad and I would cut our favorite photos out of old Sports Afield,Field & Stream and Outdoor Life magazines and paste them in scrapbooks. We would dream of hunting around the country together and in our 700 square foot home in Orange, TX we were the best hunting team in the world.
Dad died of natural causes on a hunting trip with me in South Texas in 2014 at age 71. He just shot the second biggest buck of life, topped only by the one he shot on the same ranch the year before. A connection I made in the industry became a friend and let me and Dad live out our deer hunting dreams on his ranch.
I am eternally grateful for that.
I hated to lose Dad but there is no better way or place he could have made his trip to Heaven.
I almost quit hunting after that.
For a couple of years there it just wasn’t the same. Dad was my hunting partner and it felt so strange to be in the field without him. I would always support hunting but two years ago, I had plans no one knew about to go bury Dad’s deer rifle on the ranch he died on and walk away from hunting.
It was just too hard emotionally.
But my friend Josh Slone who came into my life through our Wild Wishes program had been inspiring me to keep at it. Every time we got around each other the conversation was hunting and it often ended up being about our mutual dream of sheep hunting.
You see right after I got the words “Higher Calling”, I found those old scrapbooks in one of my mom’s storage bins.
Opening them up again was like opening up my childhood and being back in Dad’s lap.
And as I looked at the pages I was blown away that the majority of photos were of wild sheep and wild turkeys in that order. And those were the first two things I felt I needed to pursue on the career and conservation side of a higher calling.
The Lord had taken me back to the beginning of my life and a deep, profound love of wild sheep and wild turkeys that was rekindled like a wildfire.
In the ancient Book of Pslams, the Psalmist writes “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.”
I look back at 2019 and had more desires of my heart fulfilled than I have in 10 years before that from wildlife and career perspective.
And although 2020 has been scary for all of us, I have been able to photograph desert bighorns in Nevada and capture a very rare photo of an eastern turkey in East Texas as part of the Turkey Revolution project.
I had a great hunting season and feel as alive in the woods bow hunting and turkey hunting as I did as a young man.
I am no one special.
But I get to do special things because I put my relationship with Christ first and work extremely hard on the vision of wildlife conservation and helping hurting children receive peace through wildlife encounters.
That is the true higher calling.
Without those two words, I felt in my spirit because I took time to pray, my life would look very different this year.
I am extremely concerned about the status of the outdoors industry that I have made a living in for 28 years. Like most Americans, I don’t know what is next. In this process, I have fears that need to be conquered as a man, provider, and conservationist.
But I am placing my trust in God and realizing I have a cause that is greater than the desire for even commerce.
I would continue using my God-given talent of communication on wildlife’s behalf even if there was no paycheck. I’m going to do everything I can, of course, to make sure the paychecks keep coming but that’s how much I believe in what I do.
This blog doesn’t pay. The podcast doesn’t either. These are things I do because I followed the Lord’s direction on “Higher Calling” and to keep the cause of conservation of mountain and forest wildlife front and center.
Lisa and I have never received a dime for our work with children. All of the money in our nonprofit goes to the cause and we are believing donors will continue to support what we do.
I can’t help but think about Jesus’ quote that His sheep hear his voice.
As His follower, I am one of those sheep and it blows my mind that because of hearing “Higher Calling” and doing something about it, He has led me to the wild sheep He created in the beginning and to childhood dreams never realized.
I thought seriously about this as I photographed a gorgeous desert bighorn in Nevada that actually walked down toward me after I climbed a treacherous mountainside. The beautiful ram essentially posed in perfect sunlight!
In this case, which sheep heard his voice?
Was it me who followed the call?
Or was it the ram?
Perhaps the Lord brought it down to let me know He was there with me when Dad and I were cutting out pictures of rams and putting them in a scrapbook when I was six.
And He was there with me 40 years later on the mountain.
I can’t describe what that feels like.
Sometimes it’s hard to feel truly loved in this crazy, often dark world but as I knew the Lord brought me and that ram together. the Creator’s love was tangible.
I praise Him for the opportunity and for the higher calling.
His love for all of us is astounding. We just have to pray and listen.
Remember, His sheep hear His voice.
And I am living proof He still speaks to His flock.
COVID-19-the coronavirus has caused historic lockdowns of access to countries, states and communities around the world.
And while the human risk should be the first priority, there is huge concern for an impact on wildlife. This is the first in a series of podcasts on this topic as we see how the loss of hunting and ecotourism dollars in Africa could spell disaster for rhinos, elephants and many other species.
Please share this message. It needs to get out there.
This podcast is a must listen and so is this series. More to come…
The impact of COVID-19, the coronavirus on humanity, is nothing short of historic.
While the death toll has not and hopefully will not reach the levels of the Spanish flu of 1918, the potential is there, and the grip it has on government, commerce, and private citizens is unprecedented.
That’s why I can’t help but make parallels between COVID-19 and the near-catastrophic decline of wild sheep of the 1800s.
When Lewis & Clark set out on their epic expedition, there were around two million wild sheep in North America. By 1900, there were fewer than 25,000 according to some estimates.
And while it would be easy to blame it on unregulated hunting and market killing which no doubt had some impact, by far the biggest killer was disease.
The pathogen M. ovi is common in domestic sheep and quickly spreads through bighorn herds and often ends up in deadly pneumonia
Originating from , it hit wild herds as they co-mingled in the valleys and mountains during the westward expansion of European settlement. Millions of sheep died, and if it were not for conscientious hunters and fish and game departments around the nation, there would likely be no wild sheep left today.
It’s a story few have heard outside of wild sheep hunting and biologist circles, but now is the time.
The decline of wild sheep is second only to the government-sponsored bison slaughter in the depth of impact on a species in North America.
Humans are now quarantined, and in effect, bighorns are in many areas.
In 2016, Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) officials killed six bighorns because backpackers saw them co-mingling with domestic sheep. The bacterial form of pneumonia can be brought back to the herd and transmitted to lambs.
“When you have the lambs dying, it’s hard to build a population,” said CPW spokesman Joe Lewandowski in The Durango Herald.
“As wildlife managers, we look at populations, not individual animals. In this case, we know an individual animal could spread the disease to the larger herd, and then we have a bigger problem.”
This is not an uncommon practice in wild sheep management.
While translocations, strict herd management, and grazing restrictions have brought sheep numbers continent-wide into the 150-175,000 range, pneumonia is still the most significant threat. Still, there are no specials on Animal Planet or Nat Geo Wild or any other mainstream media outlets. This pandemic has been going on with wild sheep for 150 years, and only the hunting community, fish and game agencies, and biologists seem to care.
The focus should now be on saving people and the economies of the world, but there is space to teach a valuable lesson on wildlife conservation. There has never been a point in recent history where this particular story of wild sheep has such a great chance to touch the hearts of millions of wildlife enthusiasts.
During the downtime from work and school, people are looking for things to occupy their time and inspired, informative media on some of the beautiful animals in North America can help fill some of that void.
That is what this post is all about. I’m doing my best to let people know that when the dust settles on COVID-19 (and me and my family are praying daily that will happen soon), sheep will still have their own pandemic to face.
Concerned conservationists have done a remarkable job building herds throughout North America, but these conservationists are aging quickly, and new blood needs to step up to the plate.
Maybe something good that can come out of this tragedy is that some young person is motivated to get involved with sheep conservation. Perhaps being isolated, afraid of mingling with others and under the potential threat of death itself because of an unseen force will inspire action.
Sheep, of course, have no way to conceptualize these things, but they don’t need to when caring conservationists are in place in fish and game departments, conservation groups, and halls of the legislature.
COVID-19 may be momentarily stealing our freedoms, but it can’t rob the wild and enduring spirit of those thoughtful enough to make a bold stand for bighorns and their thinhorn cousins.
That force is as majestic as the sheep themselves.