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Are there ‘apex predators’ in Northeast Texas?

 Texas Parks and Wildlife biologists say black bears passing through Northeast Texas are visitors from points north and east.
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Texas Parks and Wildlife biologists say black bears passing through Northeast Texas are visitors from points north and east.

With a new protected wilderness area taking shape near the Red River, wildlife experts discuss the chances for bears and big cats in our area.

Bois d’Arc Lake eventually will put roughly 16,000 acres of Northeast Texas land under water, depriving the region of that amount of wildlife habitat for critters large and small to roam.

Part of the agreement to build the reservoir, though, requires the North Texas Municipal Water District – which manages the project – to restore land equal to the amount of real estate to be submerged, ideally to its pristine condition. NTMWD is doing that now at Riverby Ranch in Fannin County. Part of the goal, according to water district officials, is to make the land attractive to all sorts of native wildlife, including those known as “apex predators,” the kinds of animals that occasionally give human beings the jitters with their very presence.

What kind of predators fit that category? Essentially two: black bears and mountain lions.

The mitigation process at Riverby Ranch has moved along but is far from complete. Still, Dave Holderman, a Tyler-based Texas Parks & Wildlife Department biologist, said it will take a good bit of time for bears and cougars to come back to the region they once roamed free and clear of any human interference.

There’s a bit of a catch. Holderman is reluctant to categorize black bears as apex predators. Why? “They are omnivores. They eat anything: berries, green vegetation, nuts and, yes, the occasional mammal or bird,” he said. “They can be top-end predators, but they feed on many things other than birds and mammals.”

He said, “There are no (resident) bears presently in Northeast Texas,” but he added that “we see bears dispersing out of Oklahoma and Arkansas. A few young males do come here in early summer.”

Holderman is 70 years of age and has been “in this business” for 40 years, he said. Holderman said he earned his undergraduate degree in wildlife management from the University of Montana and his master’s degree from Penn State University.

He said TP&W monitors animal sightings “and if we get a call from someone who says they have seen a bear, we’ll investigate. If it’s something we can validate, that information goes into our database.”

Holderman said male bears are more likely to “disperse” than females, chiefly because males are essentially “kicked out of the family” by their mothers. “Males are pushed out and they’re genetically wired to go out for a walk. When they do that, they are looking for another population of bears.” A bear’s “walk in the woods” can take him 100 miles away from where he grew up, Holderman said. Female bears generally stick closer to where they are born and raised, Holderman said. “They generally are more accepted in their mothers’ home range,” he said.

Holderman noted that despite the lack of “resident” bears, “we have had sightings of bears in Fannin and Lamar counties. Nothing really in Collin County or in Hunt County."

As for mountain lions, (also known as cougars or panthers), the big cats are on the move, Holderman said. “We have evidence that cougars are moving farther east of the Rocky Mountains. Into the plains,” he added.

Cougars have some history in Northeast Texas, Holderman said, “but they’ve been killed off” by ranchers and farmers who see the animals as threats to their livestock. “We have no resident populations of cougars in the region,” he said.

Holderman added that Northeast Texas has an ample population of deer that could “support cougars” if they were to return in any numbers to the region, as deer are among the big cat’s preferred prey.

Holderman mentioned the cougar that was killed in the Dallas area about a year ago, but said, “My strong feeling is that was an animal that escaped from captivity.” He said the animal that was shot had too much fat in its tissue, explaining that wild cougars expend a lot of energy hunting for prey, and thus, they have little stored fat on their bodies.

“We have had just three documented cases of cougar sightings in the past 10 years,” Holderman said of the Northeast Texas region. “To be clear, we see them a lot in West Texas, in the Trans-Pecos region,” Holderman said, “and we get a lot of people who say they see them, but we cannot verify those sightings” in Northeast Texas.

Brandon Hall works with Resource Environmental Solutions, a private contractor hired by the NTMWD to restore the habitat at Riverby Ranch. Hall said RES has “no plans to re-introduce apex predators into the area. There are no efforts on our part. But if they come back, they come back.”

Hall acknowledges that black bears might not be considered an apex predator in the same vein as a cougar or a bobcat, but he added that he defines the term a bit more broadly than others, in that “there are no other predators that kill bears.”

Hall also noted the existence of bear-hunting seasons in Southeast Oklahoma. “We don’t have that here,” he said. Hall indicated, though, that “bears are a lot closer to us here than many of us think.”

He told of traveling to Corsicana a year ago where “someone had seen bears.”

In terms of apex predators, Hall mentioned that bald eagles, of which there are many throughout the region, also should be considered an apex predator. “I am not aware of any animals that prey on bald eagles, either,” he said.

There also are predators such as bobcats and coyotes roaming through the forests of North and Northeast Texas, Holderman noted. As for another apex predator, the wolf – which disappeared from the region long ago – “there is no chance that they’ll be coming back,” said Hall.