It was Oct. 25, 2008, and my father and I had packed in with horses to a remote area in the Black Fork Wilderness of Polk County. My father’s intent was to bowhunt for a big mountain buck, while my primary focus was on taking a black bear.
Not long after we set up camp, my father, Gary Newcomb of Mena, headed up the mountain to do some scouting. As he traveled along a bench, not far from camp, he spotted a scrape 20 yards away. Dad laid his PSE bow on the ground and went to investigate the fresh buck sign. After a minute or two of analyzing the scrape, he turned to retrieve his bow and was shocked at what he saw. No more than a stone’s through away, a bear had seemingly materialized out of thin air and was sniffing his bow!
The bear made no noise and appeared like a black ghost. Startled, Dad threw his hands in the air and hollered at the bear! The bear paid little attention to the commotion but eventually moved off about 30 yards and crouched by a tree. Slightly unnerved, Dad gathered up his bow and put an arrow into the bruin!
The bear ran 250 yards and we recovered it the next morning! That bear likely had never seen a man before, and obviously not one with a bow in his hands.
It’s stories like that one that help make Arkansas the bear hunter’s paradise that it is.
Arkansas black bears have intrigued me for as long as I can remember. Truth be known, few days have passed in the last 10 years when my thoughts haven’t drifted to Arkansas’ bear country. The black bear is an iconic symbol of true wilderness and its presence in Arkansas gives the state a unique wilderness flavor, unlike many other Southern states.
Reintroduced into Arkansas in the 1950s and ’60s after near extinction, black bears now thrive in the Ozarks, Ouachitas and parts of the Delta. In the wildlife biology community, the Arkansas reintroduction of bears is considered the most successful reintroduction of large carnivores in the world. With population numbers now reaching 3,500 statewide, there has never been a better time in the last 100 years to harvest an Arkansas black bear.
Some 50,000 bears are estimated to have occupied the state at one time. No doubt, Arkansas’ pre-settlement bear habitat ranged from the highlands of the northwest to the ancient hardwood bottoms of the southeast Delta, all prime habitat. It was comparable to any black bear habitat on earth.
Black bears are eccentric creatures made mysterious by fairy tale and folklore; the lumbering black giants typically have been misunderstood and misrepresented in the eye of the public. The return of the black bear has given Arkansans a second chance at stewarding a most valuable resource — and at the forefront of that campaign is Arkansas’ hunters.
BLACK BEAR MANAGEMENT
Myron Means, Arkansas’ new statewide Bear Coordinator has been studying and working with bears for 13 years. Aside from being extremely knowledgeable about Arkansas bears, Means is passionate about them as well.
“I would say the general statewide forecast for the 2009 bear season would be moderate to good,” Means said when asked about the upcoming bear season. “It looks like we will have at least a fair acorn crop this year in the Ozarks and Ouachitas, which probably will result in moderate baiting success and mediocre to good bear harvest in early archery season and muzzleloader season.
“Bear hunting is a key component of our bear management program in Arkansas,” the biologist went on. “Without hunting, Arkansas’ bear population would increase, which would cause a dramatic increase in bear/human conflicts.”
Means said the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission would like to see 10 percent of the bears harvested annually in the state. As a rule in wildlife biology, bear managers stabilize the population by harvesting 10 percent annually. The latest available harvest data showed that 400 bears were harvested in the 2007-08 season. That was the most bears harvested in a single year in Arkansas since bear season re-opened in 1980!
WHERE TO HUNT
The state is divided into seven different bear zones, of which only four are open to hunting. Zone 1 is located in the Ozark highlands and produced 260 bears, 65 percent of the total bear harvest in 2007-08. Bear Zone 2 is comprised of the Ouachita mountain region and produced 126 bears for 31.5 percent of the total harvest. Bear zones 5 and 5A in the southeastern corner of the state produced 14 bears, making up 3.5 percent of the statewide harvest.
The Ozarks typically have provided the “meat and potatoes” of the bear harvest, but don’t let the numbers fool you.
“Oddly enough,” Means said, “there are many areas of the Ouachitas that probably have higher bear densities than much of the Ozarks, particularly the west side of the Ouachitas around Booneville, Waldron and Mena.”
He even has some recommendations for future hunting seasons. “I would like to see an increase in bear harvest for Bear Zone 2. We have a target harvest of 150 bears which we have never reached.”
That being said, Arkansas hunters have nearly 2.25 million acres of public land open to bear hunting in the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains. What was once known as “The Bear State” is now officially “The Land of Opportunity” for bear hunters!
In the Ozarks, the top counties for black bear harvest historically have been Newton, Johnson, Pope and Madison. White Rock Wildlife Management Area stretches across five different counties — Washington, Crawford, Franklin, Madison and Johnson — and generally accounts for a good portion of the Ozarks public-land bear harvests.
Piney Creek WMA in Newton, Pope and Johnson counties would be a great place to target public-land bears. Keep in mind that baiting is not legal on public land; only on private land in Bear Zone 1 and Bear Zone 2 is baiting legal.
The Ouachitas’ top counties for public-land bear harvests are Scott, Polk and Yell. All three are “stacked,” as it were, with major amounts of the Ouachita National Forrest. There are several wildlife management areas in the Ouachitas that would provide quality bear hunting. Here are a few to key in on: Caney Creek WMA in Polk, Pike, Howard and Montgomery counties; Muddy Creek WMA in Scott, Montgomery and Yell counties. Winona WMA in Saline, Perry and Garland counties also is known for consistently producing bears.
WHEN TO HUNT BEARS
Officially closed in 1927, Arkansas’ bear seasons began a new era when the AGFC re-opened a short, five-day bear season in early December 1980. During that season, only five bears were harvested in the entire state. However, things are much different today.
The Ouachitas’ Bear Zone 2 kicks off the season with an early archery opener on Sept. 15 and runs through Nov. 30. The Ozarks’ Bear Zone 1 archery season starts on Oct. 1 and runs through Nov. 30. The muzzleloader and gun bear hunts correspond with the deer seasons, including a new youth bear hunt on Nov. 7-8 in Bear Zones 1 and 2.
“The primary reason for the Sept. 15 archery opener in Bear Zone 2 was to try to promote archery hunting and to provide more opportunity to harvest bears on bait before the acorns fall and pull bears away,” Means said in regard to the early opener. “We would like to see an increased harvest in the Ouachitas.”
Go to www.agfc.com for more details on bear season.
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