The American black bear (Ursus americanus) is an annual resident of Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge that once ranged statewide in Arkansas but was largely extirpated during the 1940’s and 50’s. Despite heavy harvest and changes in land use, a remnant population survived this period in the river bottoms of Dale Bumpers White River NWR. During the early 1940’s, the refuge’s bear population was thought to have declined to approximately 25; however, research in the early 2000’s estimated the population to be approximately 350. While northern Arkansas was repopulated with bears moved from northern states during the 1950’s and 60’s, the lower White River basin population was not supplemented and is considered genetically representative of the historic bear population that existed in the Lower Mississippi Valley of Arkansas.
In order for black bears to thrive, they require food, water, escape cover, den sites and dispersal areas. Black bears are opportunistic omnivores and food habits often reflect local food availability. In general, seasonal food habits include use of succulent vegetation, fruits, grains, hard mast and animal matter (most frequently insects but will opportunistically scavenge on dead animals).
The bears of Dale Bumpers White River NWR are highly dependent on large trees (greater than 36 inches wide) with cavities that are used as tree dens during the typical annual inundation of the floodplain forest from the White River. Den sites provide shelter and security during the denning season, which generally extends from early December through late-April, particularly for reproducing females. Dale Bumpers White River NWR black bears are a true success story. They have persisted through the years, and eventually reached a population size capable of sustaining an annual hunting season since 2001 and, at one point, 42 adult females and their 92 cubs had to be relocated to Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge in south-central Arkansas.