Drought-hit bears head for Texas urban areas

MARFA, Texas Fri Jul 29, 2011 6:09pm EDT

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MARFA, Texas (Reuters) - A historic Texas drought is driving bears into urban areas searching for food and water, the latest in a series of bizarre wildlife stories to come out of the deadly hot and dry weather across the nation.

Authorities have reported wayward razorbacks in Arkansas digging through flower beds, and bats changing their nightly flight patterns in Austin, Texas. High temperatures and stifling humidity in the Midwest have killed thousands of cattle in the Dakotas and Nebraska.

In far West Texas, the bears have been lumbering out of their normal habitats for more than one reason.

With fires scorching black bear ranges in the mountains of Far West Texas and Northern Mexico, and extreme drought making it difficult to find water and food, the usually reclusive beasts have been on the move this summer -- making their way into towns and cities increasingly.

"They're going to where they need to," said Louis Harveson, a Sul Ross State University professor of wildlife management who directs the school's Borderlands Research Institute. "They're scavengers -- they're basically an oversized raccoon."

And where bears need to go is where the food is, be it dumpsters, gardens or, as in one west Texas resident's case, bird feeders.

On a recent day, Penny Ferguson had returned from her 5:30 a.m. workout and, like any other morning, let her beagle out. The dog began barking wildly, and Ferguson ran outside to keep it from waking the neighbors.

DIDN'T LIKE THE NOISE

A full-grown black bear on all fours, so big its shoulders reached her hips, was on her front lawn near the bird feeder. The bear ran out from under Ferguson's front window and casually loped across the street.

"It wasn't much bothered, but didn't like the noise," said Ferguson, whose home in Fort Davis, Texas, is nestled near Davis mountains southeast of El Paso. "We're in town, much further into town than I would ever expect bears to be coming."

There have been 13 black bear sightings in west Texas since May 31, according to Jonah Evans, a Texas Parks and Wildlife diversity biologist for the Trans-Pecos region in charge of tracking bear sightings in the area.

In all of 2010, he said, there was only one reported sighting.

With all their proximity to humans lately, there have been no bear attacks on humans reported to authorities in Texas this year, authorities said.

But the same is not true for other regions this summer, where similar stories about bears traveling to find food have led to tragedy.

Earlier this week in Arizona, a 61-year-old woman was killed by a bear digging through a Dumpster as she walked her dog at a country club in Pinetop, Arizona, about 200 miles from Phoenix.

Two days earlier, seven teens were attacked by a bear in Alaska, though none were killed.

And two weeks ago, an adult female grizzly with two cubs killed a hiker in Yellowstone National Park.

BEAR COMEBACK

The bears' visibility in Texas this year is part of a larger narrative in the Big Bend area of west Texas, where black bears have made a comeback in the last couple of decades.

"We used to have thousands of bears in the state of Texas," Harveson said. "They (hunters) used to hunt in the Davis Mountains and harvest eight a day."

The hunting, among other factors, drove the bears to near extinction in Texas, where they are still a protected species.

But in the late 1980s, a female bear made her way across the Rio Grande from Mexico, found a male and created the first mating pair in the state in decades.

Since then, the bear population in Texas has fluctuated. Now, Harveson said, that population might see a permanent jump, an unexpected benefit to the devastation of the drought.

"I think that whole drought-lack-of-food-availability cycle actually helps them recolonize new habitats," Harveson said. "Because they're able to put their nose in the air and smell water, and once they get to the river, they start exploring. That's what we're seeing in the Big Bend."

Just how many bears are in Texas is the "hundred dollar question," Harveson said.

"As many sightings as we've had, there have to be a whole lot more than what we're aware of," he said.

Harveson said he has spotted five or six out in the field in the last two months alone.

"Most of the bears that I've seen are in surprisingly good condition," he said. "Somehow, they're making a living. I'm not sure how."

(Editing by Karen Brooks and Jerry Norton)

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