Increases in the population of black bears and elk in Arkansas were described as restoration success stories by a veteran employee of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Tuesday.
Speaking to the Downtown Pine Bluff Rotary Club, Steve “Wildman” Wilson said Arkansas “used to be known as the bear state” before the bear population began to die out. In the 1950s and 1960s, efforts were made to bring the bears back into the state by bringing in animals from other states and setting them loose in Arkansas.
Wilson said the bear population is now between 4,000 and 5,000, which has allowed the commission to establish a hunting season for them.
“Seventy percent of the bears that were killed were killed with a bow and arrow,” Wilson said.
He said two cities in the state owe their names to bears, the first being Bearden or Bears Den, the second Oil Trough in Northeast Arkansas because years ago, the city was a site for processing grease from black bears that was used in lamps, among other things.
“People would hollow out logs, put the bear grease in them and float the logs down the river,” Wilson said.
Private land owners in the state were largely responsible for the restoration efforts involving elk after habitat changes and hunting had wiped out the population, Wilson said.
“In the early 1980s, a group of private landowners went to Colorado and brought back 112 elk and released them,” Wilson said. “The elk population now numbers 450 to 500 and there is now a limited hunting season for them.”
He said he acquired the name “Wildman” in the 1980s, and at that time, the Game and Fish Commission had four people named Steve Wilson working for them, including the longtime director, Steve N. Wilson.
In 1984, “Wildman” Wilson began work on “Project Wild” which stands for Wildlife in Learning Design, an educational program for teachers designed to use animals when teaching basic subjects.
“When people would call, they would ask for that ‘wild’ man,” Wilson said.