Though bears could be found in almost every state in the 1800s, Arkansas stood out for its large bear population, famously becoming the “Bear State”
By KENNETH BRIDGES | For arkadelphian.com
The bear has long been a symbol of the American wilderness. They are playful and tame and also powerful and dangerous. They have been part of zoos and circuses for centuries and have been featured as favorite characters in children’s stories for generations.
There are eight known species of bears in the world. Three of these species live in North America, namely the polar bear, the black bear, and the brown bear. The brown bear is sometimes called the grizzly bear or the Kodiak bear, a branch of the brown bear family that inhabits the Kodiak Islands of Alaska. It is the black bear that calls Arkansas home.
The black bear can be fairly intelligent, with reports of bears being able to open jars and figuring out how to unlatch doors being widely observed. They have a sharp sense of smell and can run as fast as 25-30 MPH. The black bear is known to roam long distances from their dens. Biologists and park rangers have tracked tagged bears distances of up to 100 miles. Black bears eat both meat and plants, foraging for whatever they can find. They are not as large as the brown bear or the polar bear, but they can weigh 500 pounds or more and the males can grow to six to seven feet in length. The black bear and the brown bear are the only two species of bear not threatened with extinction.
French and Spanish trappers and explorers hunted bears in the state since the early 1700s. The bear became prized for its fur as well and particularly for its fat, which could be used for lantern fuel and as an insect repellant. As Arkansas became a state in 1836, it was already developing a reputation for its bear population. It soon began to be called the “Bear State” and became a popular destination for hunters.
With the population of the state increasing after the Civil War, bear hunting increased as settlers moved deeper into the more remote corners of the state and into the heart of the black bear habitat. To reduce problems farmers encountered with bears, the state encouraged increased bear hunting. However, the population began to drop sharply by the early 1900s. By 1927, estimates put the black bear population of the Bear State at perhaps less than 100, mostly in remote areas of eastern Arkansas near the White and Cache Rivers.
State leaders decided to change the image of Arkansas in order to attract more industry and development. In 1927, with the bear nearly extinct in Arkansas, bear hunting ended and the state made its official nickname the “Wonder State,” which would change to “Land of Opportunity” by the 1940s.
The black bear’s habitat contracted dramatically in the early 1900s. By 1959, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission decided to move to reintroduce the black bear to the state. Some 256 black bears were brought into the state from Minnesota and areas of southern Canada to repopulate the area. Encouraged by the success of the project, the state reopened bear hunting season in 1980. With careful conservation, the bear hunting season has increased in popularity and bear populations have still increased steadily. These developments, coupled with the state’s large park system and popularity among hunters and sportsmen encouraged state leaders to change the state’s nickname to the “Natural State” by the early 1990s.
Bears have been reported in many parts of the state, including the Ozarks. In recent years, bears have been increasingly spotted across the southern and eastern reaches of Arkansas. Sightings in rural Ouachita County have been reported as well as in eastern Union County. Residents in the Union County communities of Felsenthal and Junction City have seen bears approaching their houses and even walking across the street, though without incident.
While bears encounter people from time to time, bear attacks and injuries from bears are not especially common. They can attack people when startled or when protecting a source of food or protecting their young. Most of the time, bears tend to avoid people, sticking to the deep woods.
The state’s conservation efforts have been deemed a success by a range of park officials and scientists. Arkansans are again becoming used to sharing the wilderness with the bear. The “Bear State” is once again starting to live up to its old nickname.