Though relatively elusive, the American black bear - the only species of bear in Arkansas - carries a powerful Natural State attraction for wildlife watchers and photographers, many of whom consider bears to be the most significant symbol of the vanishing American wilderness. Formerly one of North America's most widely occurring mammals, the American black bear was so common in Arkansas at the time of pioneer settlement that the state's original nickname was "The Bear State." Now, bears are absent from much of the continent's interior, while the population of Arkansas bears is recovering from a once-precipitous decline.
It is believed that by the 1930's, over-hunting and habitat destruction left fewer than 50 American black bears in Arkansas. Most of those lived within the White River National Wildlife Refuge in the southeastern part of the state, while a meager few reputedly continued to inhabit the Ozark Mountains in northern Arkansas and the bottomlands along the Mississippi River on the state's eastern edge. By most accounts, they had disappeared entirely from the Ouachita Mountains in west-central Arkansas.
In the late 1950's and well into the next decade, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission restocked into the Ozarks and the Ouachitas more than 250 American black bears. By 1990, it was estimated that there were some 2,000 bears within the state, and the current population of Arkansas bears is estimated at more than 3,000. In 1998, the commission began a program of relocating Arkansas bears from the White River refuge into the Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge in extreme southern Arkansas. While the recovery of American black bears in Arkansas is progressing, the threat of additional habitat destruction remains a cloud hanging over the species' long-term future both in Arkansas and in other parts of the U.S.
Because American black bears are very averse to human contact spotting one is generally a matter of chance. The best odds of spotting bears in Arkansas seem to lie with boaters watching the shoreline of the lower White River in east-central Arkansas, specifically in the White River Refuge and the adjoining Trusten Holder Wildlife Management Area.
Most Arkansans who have seen a bear will tell you they saw it crossing a road, generally in a remote area. Again, the predominantly gravel roads within the White River refuge offer the best odds, but back roads in the Ozark and Ouachita National Forests are other noteworthy possibilities. Two paved roads that carry their own rewards even if a bear isn't seen are the Talimena Scenic Drive, a national scenic byway that begins at Mena in western Arkansas, and the Mount Magazine Scenic Byway on Ark. 309, a state scenic route that crosses Arkansas's highest mountain.
American black bears breed during the summer and males may then wander large areas searching for females. Most Arkansas bears are in their dens by late December, though they may sometimes venture out briefly during warm winter days. Young are born in the winter and mother and cubs emerge from the den in mid-May.
Black bears in the wild prefer feeding in early morning and late evening, but are active at night. Insects are a mainstay of their diet, which also includes blackberries, pokeberries and blueberries in the summer and acorns and hickory nuts in autumn.
Note: Arkansas state law prohibits and levies a stiff fine for placing bait to attract bears for any reason, including observation and photography. American black bears are not teddy bears and observers should remain at a respectful distance from them. Read our wildlife ethics and tips page before venturing out into black bear country.