Adrian Van Dellen

Reel 4208


INTERVIEWEE: Adrian Van Dellen


DATE: July 2, 2024

LOCATION: Woodville, Texas

SOURCE MEDIA: M4A, MP3 audio files

TRANSCRIPTION: Trint, David Todd

REEL: 4208

FILE: AmericanBlackBear_VanDellen_Adrian_WoodvilleTX_2July2024_Reel4208.mp3


David Todd [00:00:02] Well. Good morning. David Todd here.


David Todd [00:00:05] And I have the great privilege of being with, Adrian Van Dellen. And with his permission, we plan on recording this interview for research and educational work on behalf of a non-profit group called the Conservation History Association of Texas, and for a book and a website for Texas A&M University Press. And finally, for storage and an archive at the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.


David Todd [00:00:34] I want to emphasize that he would have all rights to use the recording as he sees fit.


David Todd [00:00:38] And, before we went any further, I wanted to make sure that we have, Mr. Van Dellen, or Dr. Van Dellen to be accurate, his permission to proceed.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:00:52] David, yes, indeed you do. I’m delighted to be with you this morning. And so, I look forward to our chat.


David Todd [00:01:02] Great.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:01:02] Thank you.


David Todd [00:01:03] Well, thank you.


David Todd [00:01:05] Well, let’s get started then.


David Todd [00:01:07] It is Tuesday, July 2nd, 2024. It’s about 9:15 a.m. Central Time. As I said, my name is David Todd. I’m representing the Conservation History Association of Texas, and I am based in Austin, and we are doing this interview remotely with Dr. Van Dellen. He is based in the Woodville / Jasper area, not too far from Steinhagen Reservoir. Dr. Van Dellen is many things. He’s a veterinarian. He’s a retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force. He’s a research pathologist, a photographer, author, and filmmaker.


David Todd [00:01:48] He has been based in East Texas, not too far from Woodville and Jasper, since 1994. And he has a strong interest in the Pineywoods and has dedicated a great deal of his time to protecting the biodiversity and wild nature of the Neches River and the corridor and watershed that it runs through, through illustrated books such as the “Neches River User Guide” and “Let the River Run Wild: Saving the Neches”, and even a pending movie called “Life on the Neches River”. He’s also been involved in non-profit work through the Neches River Watershed sentinels.


David Todd [00:02:27] He has a special passion, we should say, for black bears and their return to the Middle Neches River corridor. And towards that, he has served as an officer and science advisor for a non-profit called the Black Bear Alliance.


David Todd [00:02:44] So, today we’ll be talking, about Dr. Van Dellan’s career and his life and his conservation work so far, and especially focus on what he can tell us about the Louisiana black bear, its challenges, its possible recovery, and more.


David Todd [00:03:01] So, with that, I wanted to thank you. And then also just start with a question. And, I was wondering if you might be able to point to any people or events in your childhood, which I think you spent on a farm near Crookston, Minnesota, where you, I gather, may have gotten some early interest in some of your current concerns about wildlife and bears and nature in general.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:03:31] Well, David, thank you for that extensive background review. It sounds like I’ve been busy, and I do stay busy on a daily basis still today. I don’t have quite the same vigor. But, I’m lucky still to be able to do what I love to do. And so here we go.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:03:55] I look back on my childhood and see nothing but work, in fact, because I’m an old farm boy. I grew up on a farm in Crookston, Minnesota, and I was, at the age of 14, basically the right-hand man on my father, who it turns out, for a long, long time was the most important person in my life. I worked closely with my father on the farm that he created back in the late ’50s.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:04:32] And so, I grew up with animals. But they were not wild. They were dairy. They were pigs, domesticated, and sheep. And I had lots of pets, who occasionally would end up on the dinner table.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:04:52] It wasn’t it wasn’t like it was in my dreams. I recall, I was about five years old. I wandered off to a neighbor farm, a dairy farmer, and loved his new calves. And I was sort of tolerated. And I opened the gate and I began to walk home with that calf and made it all the way home. And of course, dad wouldn’t allow me to keep it. And the farmer was delighted to get it back.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:05:23] But I’ve always been sort of attracted to animals and that has not changed.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:05:31] I grew up, as I said, working a lot. And so, for our environment, we didn’t have TV shows. That weren’t movies. I remember a lot about Life magazine and dreams of traveling as Life magazine would open up and seeing all the world and its wildlife and so forth.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:05:55] There were a few books and over the years I, well, I’m a fair reader. I stay up pretty much on science kind of reading. However, I’m not much into entertaining reading. I do do some of that, but some of my favorite books, for example, is Thomas Berry’s “The Dream of the Earth”, and “The Great American Bear Book”, by Jeff Fair, and Lynn Rogers’ books about bears. And I read about Lance Craighead – “Bears of the World” and Terry DeBryun’s book, “Walking with Bears”, and, I love Benjamin Kilham, with “Out on a Limb”. That’s also about bears. The “Grizzly Heart”, written by Charlie Russell. So, science and bear kind of reading is what I get into these days.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:06:59] And I particularly liked, and still treasure so much, Richard Donovan’s “Paddling the Wild Neches”, because that hits close to home.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:07:10] So, I like reading, but I don’t have much time for it. I actually like to be outdoors more than indoors with a book. But I do do that.


David Todd [00:07:23] Well, that’s great.


David Todd [00:07:24] So, I think you’ve given us a little flavor of your childhood, growing up on a farm, and it’s lovely to have this bibliography of some of the books that have been influential for you.


David Todd [00:07:38] I think you mentioned that your father had been influential. Were there any teachers? I mean, you’ve had extensive education from, of course, grade school, but also, State Teachers’ College and then the University of Minnesota, where you trained to be a veterinarian. And I was wondering if there were mentors along the way or possibly classmates that encouraged this interest in the outdoors and nature?


Adrian Van Dellen [00:08:04] Yes. I have more than I can remember.  It’s true, you know, but there are a couple of folks that really stand out. And as I mentioned, my father was actually top of that list. And high school, grade school and then into high school, not so much, because in those years, once we got on the farm back in the ’50s, I worked for a farmer, and I was out in the fields. I was milking cows. I was caring for the livestock, and so, my life’s influence was home, and dad, who was out working to bring in the cash flow for the groceries. You know, we’d get a milk check but once a month. But, I was busy.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:09:01] And so, that changed a bit once I got into my collegiate years and veterinary medicine particularly. You know, people that stand out in my life were a couple, about 3 or 4, that really are always on top of my list: Dr. Mather, who was a small animal veterinary medicine professor who, I just, you know, was enamored by. And very particularly Dr. Barnes, who it turns out was my neighbor as well. But he was a pathology professor and worked in the State Diagnostic Laboratory, where I had a part-time job for three years during my veterinary school.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:09:43] And then, during my senior year, as we got into clinics, with large animals, there was a Dr. Baker. He was a veterinarian from the Colorado veterinary system. And he was a specialist in horses. And I took to him because I had a favorite drive and ambition to be a horse veterinarian, an equine practitioner. And so, when I graduated, Dr. Baker, after being my teacher, became my colleague. And Dr. Baker was just phenomenal, had phenomenal ability to work with equines, with horses. And I learned so much from him, and I guess I would have to say I regret I couldn’t continue because I got shifted to something else, but, in pathology.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:10:47] But I just wanted to be a horse practitioner. In fact, when I graduated from veterinary school, I applied for a job in Oregon to be an equine practitioner there. But because I was late applying for the state exam, I couldn’t take it and therefore couldn’t qualified to practice there.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:11:05] So, I ended up in the Air Force that summer. And the Air Force is where I began my career, basically as a veterinarian, full-time. And then there were a lot of folks along the way there. And one of those was in pathology, once I got into the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C., where I did a pathology residency or internship, really, there was, Dr. Conner and he was a specialist in infectious diseases, and has written many infectious disease books, the textbook for the medical profession. He was not a veterinarian. He’s a medical doctor.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:11:55] Armed Forces employs pathologists in many, many departments. But I worked in the geographic pathology department. And he was the head of that. And that was very influential on me. And very many people in there, many of them medical doctors, the specialists in leprosy was there. He was an influence on me.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:12:22] So many people, and most of them, honestly, don’t come up in my mind very often. I have to reach out for that. But they were certainly there, and there were many more that I don’t remember.


David Todd [00:12:34] Well that’s good. It’s always good to understand people’s origins. And, of course, part of it is, is where we grow up. But, these people always figure large. So, thank you for sharing that.


David Todd [00:12:48] Well, tell us a little bit about these early years where I understand you served as a veterinarian in the Air Force, and I’m curious about your experience caring for animals.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:13:03] Well, yes. And a veterinarian in the military, the Department of Defense, in my case, the Air Force, for the most part, a veterinarian doesn’t deal much with animals. He’s basically a public health inspector or official. And so, we’d get assigned to inspect food and for houses and back houses and inspect for dead cans of beans and so forth. That’s veterinary profession, because the horses are gone. You know, except for a few that were made to function in special events in the military.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:13:49] So, I was a base veterinarian, but lucky because I was first assigned to the Azores, which is one of those nine islands in the eastern Atlantic that belongs to Portugal. I was there at Lajes Field as a base veterinarian as my first job, and luckily enough, because it’s remote for the residents of the military that are on base, and that live in the community. You are their veterinarian. And so, I actually practiced, but that’s a rare position. And so, I did.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:14:26] And then, in addition to that, I also was I a worker in the so-called People to People program, and the US reached out to Azorean citizens and Azoreans’ culture to have a number of programs and I was part of that. So, I at one time was the veterinarian for the bullfighting horse. And there was only one on the island, and it was a remarkable animal, and I was its veterinarian.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:14:58] And then I had a short tour at Altus, Oklahoma once I returned from the overseas assignment and I worked there for a year as a base veterinarian again. And there was some practice to be done there. But basically, we are the senior staff for the enlisted folks that do the inspection for food, the restaurants and all things related to public health. So, yeah, public health officers, and you manage that with the professional staff, technical staff.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:15:43] But, so I knew that wasn’t going to be my future because I wasn’t really interested in public health, per se, but I was interested in pathology because my background with Dr. Barnes, and all my experience aimed myself towards pathology.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:16:01] So, I got lucky. In 1971, I ended up as a pathology intern at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C. And for, five, no, actually about three years, not five, about three, four years, until ’75, I was a resident student of pathology, amongst mostly human pathologists. And my direct boss was a veterinarian, and I was being groomed in special pathology for a tour in South Africa, which was part of, I mean, I was in a program that had been going on for years where there was an exchange relationship with an institution in South Africa called the Aurum Institute in Pretoria, and I was a guest researcher there once I graduated out of that internship at AFIP.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:17:14] And so, with that, I had my start in work, in pathology.


David Todd [00:17:22] Well, that’s really interesting. I mean, I think that, you know, sometimes our training takes us in different directions, uses a lot of the skills that we get in school, but, you know, maybe takes us to places we didn’t anticipate, from the Azores to South Africa to pathology. That’s fascinating.


David Todd [00:17:45] Well, so I understand that while you were serving in the Air Force, you had the opportunity to visit East Texas a number of times. And I gather that that really struck you in that you fell in love with the Pineywoods, and eventually came back there. And I was wondering what it was about those early experiences in the Pineywoods that appealed to you.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:18:11] Well, a lot. And, I could talk the rest of the day about that, and we’ll cover a lot of that.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:18:17] But I have to go back a little bit because, there’s always this question of what really got you started in wildlife work. And it turns out it was Africa, it was South Africa. It was my assignment at Pretoria, which is a research institution in South Africa. And it brought me to Kruger National Park with a very different number of projects that I was involved with. I did research there also, but I did a lot of field work, and that resulted in the harvesting of tissues of wildlife for pathology, surveys of infectious diseases and so on.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:19:06] That involved the Kruger National Park, which is some distance out of Pretoria. So, I would drive eight hours to Kruger National Park about every six weeks for a period of nearly four years. I was in South Africa for four years with a young family. I owned a house, drove a Blazer, mind you. So, I got, I had that shipped as part of the privileges that go with that job overseas.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:19:36] I was assigned to the State Department, although I was a Air Force officer, a major, by that time, and didn’t wear a uniform. Grew a beard, until my boss finally figured that out, and said, “Well, that doesn’t work.”


Adrian Van Dellen [00:19:55] So, in any case, I got involved with work in Kruger National Park, surveying wildlife for pathology, and that involved necropsies. And I would finish the work on a carcass, and I would just take that carcass and at the Luvuvhu River, which is in the northern part of Kruger National Park, would just sling that carcass into the river and enjoy the crocodile that would just catch that right out of the air. Kind of had fun with that.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:20:32] And once I did that, and my fellow worker, Dr. Defaust, who was the principal, at the time, the principal research officer for the National Park Services in South Africa. He was the researcher I worked with as a colleague. He tapped me on the shouldern, and said, “Adrian, you don’t want to do it that way. Let me show you.” So, he took the next carcass and he very gently let it slip down the side of the bank into the water. And he said, “You got to have respect, even for a carcass.” And I learned a very important lesson about the sensitivities there of life itself, but particularly wildlife.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:21:17] And of course, I saw lots of wildlife – as you can imagine, all the big five. I did necropsies on giraffe. I did necropsies on ungulates – zebras and so forth for study purposes. Monkeys, baboons. For four years, I was a very busy person.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:21:37] So, I was there as a representative of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, the Department of Defense, as a forerunner to kind of scan what zoonoses, diseases, might be out there – that is to say, those diseases that transmit from animals to man. And that was the purpose of my job there. And I involved myself in research. Besides the surveys, I had vervet monkeys in captivity which were infected with a protozoan organism, Encephalitozoon cuniculi, which is an infectious protozoan in domestic dogs. I put that into monkeys and show that this is a zoonotic agent.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:22:37] Encephalitozoon cuniculi is a protozoan. And I could talk all day about that. I just love that little critter. It’s very small. About the shape of a .22 bullet, it is less than a micron. And it creates disease in dogs in South Africa. But other than that, it is a silent infection, even in a primate. And by extension and inference, in a human, and will reside as a hidden infection as a protozoan. And that was probably my most important work.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:23:13] And it is an example of what David Quammen, a very popular writer about infectious diseases and these things called spillovers. The spillover type of infection is what comes out of the wildlife, out of the environment, and infects humans – zoonotic diseases. 75% of new modern infections are zoonotic. And Covid, despite the political turmoil and all the ramifications of theories, it’s probably a zoonoses.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:23:59] So, zoonotic pathology was actually my professional expertise – infectious diseases.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:24:05] And it indirectly got me involved with wildlife for the rest of my life.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:24:11] And I didn’t know anything about a bear. But I knew a lot about lion. So, Kruger National Park, South Africa, was the highlight of my professional career. And the start of my interest in wildlife.


David Todd [00:24:26] Well, that’s fabulous. And it’s so prescient. I mean, you know, here we’re just coming out of this terrible Covid pandemic and, you know, I think you probably could have predicted this back then, that there were these zoonotic diseases that were going to put us all at risk. And, I’d love to return to that. Maybe as we close down the interview in a little bit. But I wanted to talk a little bit about your early exposure to the Pineywoods, because that seems like a lead in to your lifelong interest in bears.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:25:10] Right.


David Todd [00:25:10] And, I was curious about this early exposure to the Pineywoods and what might have appealed to you there that brought you back to settle after you retired.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:25:22] Right. So, from my assignments in Washington, D.C., I came to Texas and was assigned at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, and worked in what is called clinical investigation. But during those years, as our teenagers grew up, and for the next ten, 12 years, we visited East Texas, and we went fishing in these wonderful waters here, particularly in the Sabine River, actually, not the Neches River, where I eventually focused. But what drew me was the fact that it’s green over here in East Texas, as opposed to the typical look of San Antonio and mid Texas, which is very much like South Africa, actually, a bit drier. But I love the green environment, and I love trees and I love waters. And there were rivers here.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:26:23] And so, I knew, upon retirement, I would come back to East Texas permanently, which I did in ’94. And, I actually bought a little piece of property here and continued my photography. At that point in time, I already was photographing, even as we went fishing, before I retired here. I continued my photography, and I focused on the Neches River fairly early.  But I already had a lot of pictures of East Texas, which was an easy focus.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:27:02] Now, why choose photography when you’re less than 50 years old and you’re retired but very busy? Well, I basically am a photographer because, as a pathologist, with your microscope, light microscope, you’re a photomicrographer. And I photographed a lot of things. And, as an electron microscopist, with an electron microscope, you photograph, you come up with a eight-by-ten black-and-white print of what work you do. So, I’ve always been behind a camera, big and small.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:27:42] And when I retired, I decided I would stay with the camera. But I’m love that I focus it on wildlife and the environment the landscape and the fauna and flora that lives within it. And so, my free time as a retired young man, still, was with a camera in East Texas.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:28:06] And my kind of environment, it was like being home in Minnesota because it’s green and it has water. And so, the Neches River was my attraction.


David Todd [00:28:20] I can see. It sounds like something that you probably felt very at home with, probably resonated with your experience in Minnesota growing up.


David Todd [00:28:34] So, well, so one of the major characters, I guess, in your life and in East Texas is the black bear. And I’m wondering if you can recall your first sighting of a black bear, whether it was in East Texas or elsewhere.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:28:51] Funny enough, it wasn’t in Texas, and I had to go back to Minnesota, the place of my youth to find my love of my life. I hate to say it, but that is a black bear. The black bear, the first black bear I saw was one I signed up for, a study class in Ely, Minnesota about black bear, and also with a second institution that also features black bear. And so those two places in Ely, Minnesota (one is actually close to Ely – Orr, Minnesota), and that place is the American Bear Association, which has a wildlife refuge that feeds bear so that the folks who come in to a viewing stand or make arrangements to photograph while walking amongst those bears that are being fed.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:30:05] That was my first exposure of a black bear and I was seven feet away, with a 400-millimeter camera. I mean, I was, I was in heaven.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:30:16] The second place there in the Ely, Minnesota area is Dr. Lynn Rogers’ Center for North American Black Bear, which is today a museum of black bear work that he’s done and everything about black bears. And he has a second place there, it’s called the Wildlife Research Institute, where he has what’s called a black bear study course. And you live with Dr. Rogers at his research place there. And you spend three or four days immersed in the work that he’s done and his experience with for 50 years as a researcher of black bear.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:31:08] He is well known by the folks who know black bear, but amongst the biology folks of the world, not so much, because his method of study is that he basically sits amongst them. He walks amongst them and he feeds them, and he’s never been attacked. The one time it was an outlier, it was a rare event and a female mother stood above him and they looked at each other’s eyes, and walked away.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:31:51] So, Lynn Rogers is now the number one influence indirectly, and the person I look up to, in terms of important people because he teaches us about black bear. And that’s where I first learned what I still am, still a neophyte on, in terms of black brown life, black bear behavior, black bear personality. There’s just so much about that animal that is human-like that I am, I am so delighted to be able to pursue now for the rest of my life.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:32:31] But I started in Minnesota. I had to go back home to find my niche.


David Todd [00:32:36] Well. That’s great. Nice to loop back there, both to your home state, and also to see this animal that so intrigues you, and I think you’ve developed such a rapport with.


David Todd [00:32:52] Well, so, it sounds like Mr. Rogers and others have taught you a great deal about bears, and I was wondering if you could share, you know, a brief introduction to their life history and the ecological niche that they fill. Can you help us get acquainted with black bear?


Adrian Van Dellen [00:33:12] Yes. When a magnificent animal stands on its hind feet, it’s about six feet tall. And he’s an omnivore. Omnivorous in his feeding habits. About 80, 90% of his food is vegetable matter. He’s a vegetarian.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:33:34] He’s talked about by the biology world, professionals, as a top predator. But that’s misleading because most of us, when we think about a top predator, we’re talking about the cougar, talking about the lion. This animal is not a predator in that sense at all. So, I don’t see him, I don’t, in my mind, I don’t classify him as a top predator because I doubt he is. He’s actually a gentle giant to me. He’s non-aggressive – he and she, it is non-aggressive, truly non-aggressive.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:34:09] And if you are paying attention to some of these little clips that come on our phones once in a while, you know, news organizations put them on about black bear interaction with humans, it’s just delightful. And none of those show an aggressive animal. They’re in your swimming pool. They’re swinging on your hammock. They’re coming into your home. And if you back off and let them have it, and open the door and say, “Get out”, they will. But if you surprise them, they’ll probably take a swat at you. And that’ll hurt because it’s a big animal.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:34:47] A female weighs about 150 to 200 pounds. Again, this is an average. It’s the bell-shaped curve. At the top center of a bell-shaped curve, you’ll see a female about 150, 200 pounds, a male, oh, about 250 pounds. And if you feed him in a zoo, you’ll see, and the record shows, he can go to 800 pounds.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:35:14] I don’t know what the profession believes. The grizzly is a much bigger animal, much more aggressive. And yet, when you’re talking about bears, the general public puts them all together and says that a bear’s a bear. But that’s not true at all. The black bear’s truly different from any other top predator in the world.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:35:40] Now, what’s interesting about the black bear is their lifestyle. And not a lot of the female. And that they, come to reproductive maturity about 2 to 3 years. She’ll have 2 to 3 cubs, which she’ll nurse, for 18 months, a year and a half. It goes back into the den with little cubs for a second year.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:36:14] But along the way, the male has nothing to do with raising the family. It is all done by the female. And once she weans, her offspring, the female cub, if she’s in a good habitat, is likely to stay nearby. She will share her rich habitat with her daughters.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:36:35] Their sons are literally chased out of the natal group and it, it is a wanderer. So, those black bears that are part of sightings are almost 100%, here in East Texas, they will be a male, a young male, maybe five years old, trying to get into the breeding group, and finds competition and it wanders.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:37:03] So, that’s a little bit of a highlight.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:37:07] The black bear is a keystone species. It fits into the top food chain, in a sense. From a standpoint as an omnivorous species in the environment, and as a keystone species, it is a foundation for much of the environment and ecology out there.


David Todd [00:37:34] Can you give us some examples about how it is, just sort of place its keystone role in the larger ecosystem? That would be really interesting to understand.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:37:48] A keystone species, whether it’s a plant or a mammal or any other creature, but particularly mammals, are those that sort of are a integral part of the ecology, and that is essential and has influence on all the rest of life that it lives in. And so, for example, the black bear actually supports the insect population and by kicking over an old log and looking for grub, it also spreads life forms that are much smaller and is an integral part of that. That’s a keystone connection.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:38:47] That’s the simplest terms. There’s lots of specifics too. The black bear technically, then, in that little example is a pollinator, because insects evolve on that, a butterfly and so forth. And it spreads seeds from the flowers. And so, if you look at it from that standpoint, and I think about this because one of my friends was asked one time to talk about the black bear as a pollinator, as a how are you going to handle that? But it is, from the standpoint that is a keystone species within the ecology.


David Todd [00:39:26] That’s fascinating. You know, you think about pollinators as being, I don’t know, monarch butterflies or small hummingbirds, but, a 200-pound black bear would not be the first pollinator that would come to mind, but I see, I see your point.


David Todd [00:39:42] So, well let’s talk a little bit about the history of the black bear. I understand that Louisiana and American black bear were once relatively common in East Texas, and I was wondering if you can sort of take us back in time before, maybe Western settlement, when they were more common. And, would you, have you read much about early sightings and you know, what the circumstances might have been?


Adrian Van Dellen [00:40:13] Yeah, I read more than I can remember but I can give it a couple of highlights.


David Todd [00:40:18] Yes, please.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:40:23] Yes. Very simply this – that by the 1940s, they were essentially extirpated. But before the 1940s, in the early years, before we’d even cut down all our magnificent longleaf forests here in East Texas, they were all over Texas, lots of bears.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:40:43] And it essentially involved the four basic species. Of the black bear, there are 16 subspecies, and there were four in Texas. And of those four, two of them are, were essentially as they are today. And the only places where we have black bear in Texas today is western Texas. And that is the two species, one of which is the Mexican black bear. Ursus americanus eremicus is the Mexican black bear. And then the New Mexican black bear, also in the West Texas area, but a little bit further north than Big Bend is the, Ursus americanus amblyceps, which is a New Mexican black bear. Those are the two of the four that still remain in Texas today, where there’s a breeding population of them, and western states, like New Mexico.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:41:57] The other two is the type species. First of all, is the, American black bear, Ursus americana americanus. It is a type species sometimes referred to as the Minnesota black bear. And it resided, in a general sense, pretty much central Texas, extending towards east Texas. And it had an extension out of Oklahoma, Arkansas, and further north being the type species, so-called Minnesota black bear. It had a little occupation in a half a dozen or so counties up in the northeastern part of East Texas.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:42:46] But all the rest of East Texas had what is known as the Louisiana black bear, which is Ursus americanus luteolus. That’s the one of East Texas that is gone and no longer resides here, of which there is no breeding population and no official sightings in southeast Texas. But in the northeast, coming out of Oklahoma, because there’s a breeding population very close, just across the Red River and probably coming out of Arkansas (in fact, the Oklahoma population is an extension of what developed and evolved and restored in Arkansas).


Adrian Van Dellen [00:43:38] But today, as a general statement and an overview, we had our bears extirpated and gone by the 1940s and they have not returned to Southeast Texas.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:43:52] And that is where my focus is. Hopefully I’ll be able to do a little bit to help recover them for Southeast Texas.


David Todd [00:44:01] Okay. Well, maybe you can sort of help us understand the arc for these, the range and the population. Maybe we can focus on the Louisiana black bear or possibly the Minnesota black bear. You know, the ones that might have been once native to East Texas. I’d be curious to hear what you have to say about where they went. What happened? Why did they disappear? Was it a habitat change? Was it hunting, something else that was a big factor?


Adrian Van Dellen [00:44:37] Yes. And again, in a word, it’s regulated hunting and land use changes – the fragmentation of land over the years as we evolved and developed and rebuilt our habitat. And black bear was extirpated. And in fact, the last bear shot in Texas, ironically enough, was in 1964. But, also, ironically, it was not an original Louisiana black bear or the type species – Minnesota black bear – that was native. It was probably, but never proved. It had been shot in San Augustine County, near San Augustine in east Texas.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:45:35] But, it probably was one of those or 160 or so black bear, Minnesota black bear, that were brought in by Louisiana officials to Louisiana and released. And they dissipated. Of course, they wanted to get back home. They have a tremendous homing instinct. But some of them ended up coming across the Sabine River. And one got shot in San Augustine County.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:45:58] And there was another one reported, never photographed. The one in San Augustine was actually in the paper – a nice picture of it. Four men holding up a great big rug. Terrible.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:46:12] But there was also one shot on life on the Neches River near Highway 84, downstream from Highway 84 crossing. That is talked about, and particularly I got that from Richard Donovan, who’s probably a reliable source of information on that.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:46:32] But those were not made of black bear any longer. They were gone in 1940s. These were probably those that were wandering. They were all male. Both of those were male. And they were probably wandering trying to get back home.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:46:50] And so, the history of black bear in East Texas is really very slim in terms of what was left over after our experience with the unregulated hunting and the continuing fragmentation of our land.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:47:10] They are listed today in Texas as threatened. And they often talk about it as an endangered species, but that’s a generality. They’re actually listed as threatened.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:47:24] And there’s an extensive fine for killing a black bear if it happened – no matter where it came from or anything. It’s protected in Texas.


David Todd [00:47:36] Okay. Well, so I think you’ve touched on some of these major factors in the bear’s decline in Texas. And one thing that you mentioned was hunting and I think that there are some near mythic stories about Ben Lily and Uncle Bud Bracken and other famous bear hunters, and I guess probably folks that maybe were more just occasional, infrequent hunters. But can you explain what, you know, the impetus was for all the bear hunting or maybe any incidents that contributed to their decline?


Adrian Van Dellen [00:48:20] Well, the black bear was numerous, and very large numbers were in the pioneer days which was actually a problem and a tremendous resource. Number one, it would come into your pigsty in the night and might go after your little piglets. And so, he was relentlessly haunted, but also for its resources, for fur, oil and meat. And back during the Civil War, there was an export of bear oils and meat out of East Texas here. Very, interesting place on the Neches River for supplying food and fur and clothing and so forth for, for the soldiers, for the war effort.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:49:25] But, hunting you know, was part of life and I think provided food on the table, protection for your livestock.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:49:40] But there were a number of individuals who got notoriety and Ben Lilly was one of those. Uncle Ben Bracken – and you just Google that, you know, you learn all you want to know about the hunting attitude.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:49:56] But it was willful, and there was a lot of shooting. I think of, I think about the bear extirpation as I do the buffalo: some of that was just for show, as it is today for the trophy. For the trophy element – our diversion, our relationship with wildlife was no different than. And so, the history records a person like Ben Lilly is known to have shot as much as 60 bear over time.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:50:33] These are exaggerations, I’m sure, but the fascination with it is interesting, because even today, my good friend Keith Stevens and their friend Lori Horn do reenactments of Ben Lilly’s exploits, and that’s very fun to see and interesting.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:50:53] But for me, it just conjures up the tragic story of the demise of the black bear in East Texas.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:51:03] There are sightings today. I failed to mention. Really, there are sightings here in southeast Texas. There are up in the Northeast, reasonably regularly, on an annual basis. But in the Northeast, there are about a half a dozen counties, near the Red River. There are only on average, over decades now, only two or three black bear a year. And they never stay. And they’re probably those wandering males looking for love and new breeding opportunities, new territories.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:51:39] But the last couple of years, there have been some sightings which are really fun and interesting. In fact, the last couple of years, and in 2023, there were four here in southeast Texas. But two of those were actually hoaxes and totally fabricated stories. One of those stories brought in a biologist, actually, that investigated, and the two men who put that story together didn’t relent until finally they admitted, “We made all this up”, and that included, “No, we had him in a stock trailer and finally decided to let him go.” But it was a story.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:52:27] And then there are pictures that come that I get and others, and Texas Parks and Wildlife staff get that are pictures of black bear on a green field. And one was from Fred, which is just south of me, toward Beaumont – Fred, Texas here in East Texas and, nowhere can you take a picture in Fred, without a tree in it or some building and that’s with a black bear on a green field. And, a couple weeks later, the story comes out that that’s a hoax as well.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:53:00] And another time, the third one was a black bear picture that showed one in a tree and said, “Oh, that’s here in Hardin County”, and the specifics were cited, but it turns out that picture was taken in Rock Springs – West Texas – up there by Highway 10, another hoax.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:53:23] The only one sighting that Texas Parks and Wildlife was alerted to here in southeast Texas last year – one of those four – was one they actually did investigate. I went out to see what was going on. It got into the Beaumont papers – this homeowner in Orange County, Orange City, Orange area, in the east part of the city. A homeowner saw a black bear near his dumpster, took a photograph of it from about 75 yards, and it turned out to be a nice big, big black spot that doesn’t show a head and really, outstanding features of a black bear.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:54:15] But. Well, when you went to investigate, and I did, and got the details of that story, and you were there on site, there was no doubt that that was one of those sightings that people talk about. But this thing is real and true. But it’s only a class two at best, a class one is a photograph or photographical evidence of black bear presence in that sighting. And class two is that a hunter or someone like myself or a biologist has some reason to be able to make a reasonable judgment that this is a sighting. And then a class three would be just a hoax or a story that’s proved to be untrue.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:55:01] And so there’s no official recognition in the records of Texas Parks and Wildlife that there is a reliable sighting of black bear in east Texas, but I’m convinced that it occurs. I proved it to myself investigating that fourth one last year. And it’s very likely that what is happening now in southeast Texas, was what was occurring, and has been occurring for the last three, four decades in northeast Texas. And these are bears that are coming from known more dense areas of population, of presence, not even a population like in eastern Louisiana. There’s a breeding population. There are three or four areas of a breeding population in eastern Louisiana.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:55:51] And they wander into western Louisiana. And there’s probably no question that they occasionally will find themselves – they’re great swimmers – across the Sabine River and they’re wandering in East Texas on occasion. And people talk about that, but it’s not been proven. I think it’s true from what I’ve learned personally.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:56:11] And so, what I think is happening in Southeast Texas now is what’s been occurring and continues to happen up in the northeast, that these bears are coming in as an extension of either a well-known breeding population that’s like in southeastern Oklahoma, as well as maybe a higher numbers of bears that are wandering into western Louisiana and that are now spilling over a little bit into southeast Texas.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:56:43] So considering what has been going on in northeast Texas for all those decades, and still today, we’re only seeing on average – some years, actually, two years ago, there were no sighting at Northeast Texas, and on average over the decades it’s one or two, maybe three, per year, on average.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:56:59] There’s only one outlier. And that was ten sightings about five or six years back in northeast. But otherwise, it’s just a couple of bears per year and they return.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:57:11] I think that’s now occurring in Southeast Texas. And I think as we go along in time, they’ll be recorded more often as a class one sighting. But it’s a slow process.


David Todd [00:57:27] I see. So, they’re sending in explorers, I guess. These are young males that are hoping, as you said, to find love and new breeding populations. But, I guess it’s a tentative kind of exploration. Well, so…


Adrian Van Dellen [00:57:49] I should emphasize one thing that I think is very important that people don’t realize, you know. You get a sighting in west Texas, it gets in the newspaper, and they don’t specify. And they say, “Bears are coming back to Texas”. Well, Texas is big. That sighting is a picture of something in west Texas. And it had nothing to do with east Texas, not even northeast Texas. But you find that difficult to discern out of the papers.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:58:15] And related to this story about fighting is the lifestyle habits of the black bear as a family. When the family breaks up in the spring – June, July – when the breeding season opens up and the female with her cubs at 18 months breaks up her family, she actually literally chases out her offspring. And the male stands by for breeding. But the female sticks around. The male is a wanderer like we talked about. And that’s those that are seen in northeast Texas. Those are the guys that are seen now, hopefully we’re going to see them here in southeast Texas.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:59:07] And eventually a female would come. But it’s 200 miles from the breeding population in Louisiana for the Louisiana black bear – U.A. luteolus. Louisiana black bear breeding population is 200 miles away. The female doesn’t move that far. As long as she’s got good habitat, she’s staying put. Not only that, she keeps her daughters nearby because she can afford to share.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:59:33] But the males, in the meantime – “Hey, the boys are wandering.” And that’s the process.


Adrian Van Dellen [00:59:41] Now there are droughts, like what’s happened in Mexico, north Mexico, in the Chisos Mountains, the mountain ranges in the Trans Pecos regions. Repopulation was assisted by droughts. So, the bears move out for new territories. They’ve got to feed and female doesn’t get fat by fall and she’s bred, she will not actually have offspring because the fetus never implanted in the uterus because she is not physically fit. Very interesting part about physiology, but that’s another story.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:00:23] But so, we’re going to see sightings. We’ll have more stories for probably quite a few years yet. Not true. Made up. But amongst all that, whatever comes in the paper, some of that will be true and they’ll be males coming in. And eventually, a female will come and we’ll have a breeding population somewhere. But if you want a bet, we’re probably going to have to bring them.


David Todd [01:00:53] Okay, well we should talk about that, about these different ways that animal populations get rebuilt and whether it’s a natural recovery or reintroduction.


David Todd [01:01:06] But I did want to just explore a couple more things about the decline of these bears so that we sort of understand the background to how, you know, the circumstance we’re in now where there are so few, if any, bear in east Texas.


David Todd [01:01:21] And I was curious, you mentioned this, I think, in passing that there were land use changes, habitat fragmentation, just the removal of a lot of these longleaf pine forests. How might that have happened? And what sort of impact would it have had on the bears?


Adrian Van Dellen [01:01:44] Oh, yeah. A very important point because, you know, hunting has been regulated, and you can’t legally hunt bears anymore in Texas, even anything that wanders in. But fragmentation continues. And there are a lot of threats in that regard. Pipelines and power lines are part of that. But, of all those and many more of our developments of the environment, road building, I think, is on the top of that list.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:02:20] And I mean, looking at East Texas, there are, two very, very, threatening examples. Number one is Interstate 14. It’s being built, is partially funded and partially built already, and Interstate 35 corridor coming out of Fort Hood. There’s like 25 miles already reaching Interstate 35. That new Interstate is going to go all the way to Georgia. It’s funded, I think through Louisiana already. It’s going to come through here in East Texas, at the very, very latest, I don’t know if it’s settled, but I know it’s going to come across the Neches River here, somewhere where I live, probably either north or south of where Interstate 190 is located, just two miles north of where I live.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:03:19] It follows that Interstate, that new Interstate, follows the old, existing state U.S. 190. And then, there’s another Interstate development that’s coming out of Houston. The old Highway 59, U.S. 59, is already an Interstate. You’re see the signs up as Interstate corridor 69 comes out of Houston on the way to Lufkin and further north. It is largely completed and continues to be built.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:04:03] And another 69, but it’s not an Interstate, but it’s State 69 that comes out of Beaumont going north, completed from where the river is just north of Beaumont, all the way to Lufkin. That’s a four-lane highway today, double-lane highway today, brand new. It’s State 69, not Interstate 69, but it’s got Interstate standard on its construction. So, yes.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:04:43] How does that affect the black bear? Well, it’s an interesting question, because we certainly take the position of it’s a threat and it’s harmful. But when you look at a state like New Jersey, where they have a very heavy black bear population, people just love their bears and they live well with them. And their state’s per-mile human and per-mile black bear is off the charts.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:05:11] We’ll never reach that. We’ve got lots of land. Our density probably will never reach that. And yet they live well.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:05:18] So, can the bear tolerate it? Yes. The bear could love it, live likely more easily, peacefully, with us than we with it, because we compete for its resources.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:05:35] But the question you raise, “Will it affect the bear?”, of course it will. But it probably won’t keep its slowdown of expansion or its ability to live with this development. I think it can live with that.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:05:49] That’s not true, you know, with a lot of ungulate things – our flora and fauna – as we develop, be it pipelines, power lines, or roads. But roads remain, I think, the number one threat at the time.


David Todd [01:06:02] And so …


Adrian Van Dellen [01:06:05] Yep. But the bear will make it.


David Todd [01:06:06] Well, and the problem with the bear and roads is that they’re, the bear, are reluctant to cross them, or there’s collisions and roadkill there?


Adrian Van Dellen [01:06:22] Yeah. So, I minimized that. And that’s actually kind of a mistake because, I would draw your attention to the biggest mortality of black bear in eastern Louisiana of those four breeding populations, that small group in the southern part of the Atchafalaya basin, south of the corridor 90 and Interstate ten, the largest mortality is actually roadkill.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:06:58] And that number there is a very special group of very high-quality genetic pool of the Louisiana subspecies – luteolus. And the highest mortality is roadkill. So, I stand corrected in terms of a threat. It survives, but there will be pockets where it will become a serious problem. And that’s true already in Louisiana.


David Todd [01:07:28] And what about timber cutting? Do you see that as either being a problem in the past, when there was this sort of bonanza years of the early 20th century, or the sort of modern-day, clearcutting and more selective management. Is that a factor?


Adrian Van Dellen [01:07:48] Yeah. It is true. But, I’ll come back to detail about this, but the best habitat for a black bear is not actually in our pine forest that have been set up as tree farms. That’s not the best habitat for black bear. And so, we clear our forest, and we’ve cleared our forest and we’ve got a lot of tree farms. But that’s probably not a threat to the black bear population.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:08:25] Where is the best habitat for a black bear? And that is in the bottoms – the river corridors. And there are four of them in east Texas, and I’ll come back to that.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:08:33] So, the forestry industry in East Texas, so, my perspective is, history shows, I think, in other states is not a threat to the black bear recovery or restoration efforts, naturally, or, you know, programmed by our institutions. So, I think there’s not a conflict with the forest industry and black bear existence.


David Todd [01:09:09] I say. Well, you mentioned these river corridors. Do you think that dam construction of the 1950s and onward played a large role in the decline of the black bear? Or did that come along so late that it’s maybe more of just a bar on the black bear’s recovery?


Adrian Van Dellen [01:09:34] That’s really a very good question, because that is a good example, a special example, of where there is a significant threat, because what happened when Sam Rayburn was built, for example. It was already, by the way, first of all, the Sam Rayburn reservoir is on the Angelina River, which is a tributary to the Neches. But, back in the day, it had already been clearcut completely. And by the time there was efforts to build dams in the ’50s when we had a drought here in Texas, it was secondary growth that had come back to the forests along the Angelina River.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:10:24] And when it got flooded, by this time back in the ’50s, it was already owned by the federal government, so it was an easy way, a cheap way, to start building for response to the drought. Sam Rayburn got built and flooded a huge area that was originally bottomland – prime bear habitat, which today is much reduced. It remains prime bear habitat, but much reduced.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:11:00] So, yes, when you look at the expanses of the bottomlands of yesteryear, they are much reduced, yet they remain. And they are identified by research as prime bear habitat for recovery and restoration.


David Todd [01:11:19] Okay. All right.


David Todd [01:11:22] Well, I think this gives us a little bit of background about where did the bears go. You’ve mentioned power lines, pipelines, overhunting, timber management, you know, these dam construction programs.


David Todd [01:11:37] Let’s talk about efforts to bring them back, and maybe one of the places to start, at least in my mind, would be the efforts in our adjoining states, Louisiana and Arkansas, which seem to be, and Oklahoma, which seem to be sources for some of these migrating bears. Do you know much about how those reintroduction efforts came about, and maybe why those similar efforts haven’t been tried in Texas?


Adrian Van Dellen [01:12:12] Well, you know, it’s a very, very important question for the future of bear recovery for East Texas. And there are two great examples. And there are many more, nearby. And that involves Arkansas and Louisiana.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:12:35] The short answer to the basic question is what is the state of Texas doing about recovery? And the answer to that is zero.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:12:43] But back in the ’50s, Arkansas didn’t see it that way. And so the wildlife officials and management decided, without legislative approval, they just brought in something like almost 550 or so black bears out of Minnesota and Ontario and restocked and recovered the black bear population of Arkansas. And that has now expanded into Oklahoma as well.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:13:20] So that was an initiative, good management, futuristic outlook for having black bear populations that had also been dissipated in that state.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:13:32] And then Louisiana did the same thing some ten years or so later, back in the ’60, the early ’60s, in about 1962 or so, they brought in about 160, 166 black bear from Minnesota also, and released them into Louisiana at different points. And as I earlier mentioned, a couple of those came back across to Louisiana, heading back to Minnesota, hopefully, and got shot.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:14:04] And then, Louisiana got smart, with the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and began a restoration and recovery effort back in the ’70s, with the Endangered Species Act support. It got listed and the Louisiana black bear over the next 25 or more years now, was subject to a program of recovery. And it did very well.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:14:38] They had maybe only about 100 bear left in Louisiana back in the ’70s, again, in the bottomlands. And a real major emphasis and impetus that drove restoration was the concern about losing the bottomland, not the bear so much, but it was also recognized that the bear lived there. And so, the bear got restored along the way.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:15:06] But there was concern about losing the bottoms, the bottomlands. And that’s an important point about us logging bottomlands today. Our logging from our tree farms is not a problem for the black bear, but it is when you start taking out the bottoms, and that is driven by market forces. And that does occur still today.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:15:30] And interestingly enough, that concern back in the ’70s is what drove the Louisiana folks and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to actually focus on the black bear at the same time.


David Todd [01:15:46] So, was…


Adrian Van Dellen [01:15:46] Yes.


David Todd [01:15:46] I’m sorry.


David Todd [01:15:49] I was just wondering if you could give us a little more detail about the the logging in the bottoms. Is that mostly hardwood rather than the softwood that might be on the plantations?


Adrian Van Dellen [01:16:00] Oh, yeah. I made the assumption that listeners would know that there are a few pine down there, but, yes, hardwood, oaks. And the various hardwoods that provide mast, lots of food, denning opportunities for the black bear, protection, shelter, a corridor for movement to different foods and feeding sites.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:16:34] So, the bottoms is not only the home for the black bear, but it evolved, as opposed to the grizzly for example, the black bear evolved in a forested environment. And it wasn’t pine forest. It was probably the hardwoods, the bottoms. And, of course, we had a lot more hardwood, oaks and stuff, even on the slopes and the upslopes and out of the bottoms. But that’s all been cut, with exceptions. But that’s not where it’s really at anymore.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:17:08] And so as I’ll come back to it in a moment, a study was done on it. And to find the best habitat in southeast Texas, it’s the river bottom and yes, that’s the hardwoods.


David Todd [01:17:22] Well, so you told us a little bit about Louisiana and Arkansas’s efforts to restore the black bear and reintroduce them. What about the situation in Oklahoma and Texas? Was there any effort to do the same thing in those states?


Adrian Van Dellen [01:17:45] Oklahoma – I don’t know their history super well. I have talked to a biologist that, a Mr. Ford, who has been involved with managing problem bears and troublesome bears in Oklahoma, southeast Oklahoma. And, he pointed out and I’ve been aware that Oklahoma took advantage of the fact that the bear was expanding out of the forested regions, along the mountain ranges, that in that part of the world run east and west. And so from central Arkansas, you saw your black bear populations expanding along the river corridors and streams going west and then ended up in southeast Oklahoma.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:18:38] That was not an active, “bring-them-back” kind of program. That was nature. That was natural recolonization.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:18:48] Arkansas had an active program of recovery.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:18:51] As far as I know, Oklahoma never had that. They’ve done a lot of studies about this natural recolonization process, and there’s a lot written about it. But it was not an organized program of recovery.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:19:04] And for Texas as well, mountain sheep and so in Texas have been recovered through active programs. But there’s nothing like that for a black bear.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:19:19] And even today, in Texas, we have a current study, I think, a certain amount of study starting, or has started, to simply study the expansion of the black bear in West Texas, coming out of Bib Bend. But that’s study, that’s not an active recovery program. That’s simply study of what the habitat does the bear prefer, and, of course, it’s about montane habitat and desert scrub.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:19:59] But the black bear though it probably prefers the bottoms. It’s very adaptable. It can survive very well in montane habitats. That’s shown very well as it expands coming out of Mexico into Texas.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:20:15] It’s not an active recovery program. It is studied and very importantly so.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:20:19] I just wish Texas would study that Oklahoma situation with East Texas up to in the Northeast and collar some of those bears that come across the Red River every year and see just exactly where they’re going back to. You know, there are a couple of, there are about three breeding populations in southeast Oklahoma.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:20:40] But again studies are important, but recovery is more important if you want bears back to southeast Texas.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:20:49] And when you read about in the papers, they’re (and it will be stated and it’s not refuted), bears are coming back to Texas. That’s not true for southeast Texas. There’s no effort by the state to bring them back, even though, as I’ll talk about in a moment, the Texas Black Bear Management Plan now has a written plan, as an outline, to recover the black bear.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:21:16] We’ll see how that goes.


David Todd [01:21:19] So, I’ve heard, and I don’t know if this is true. Maybe you can confirm or deny, that Texas is not only not actively trying to reintroduce bears, but if bears are found in Texas, East Texas, they’re returned across the border. Is that true or not?


Adrian Van Dellen [01:21:49] I wish it were happening so we could actually address it. But not only are there no bears recovered to bring back to Louisiana, Oklahoma. That never occurs, and I don’t think the state would do it. In fact, I know what they would do. They would bring that bear, and presumably it would be brought to the attention of the officials as a troublesome bear, and so it would be trapped and it would be brought back to a preexisting, predetermined existing, place where they if they would be released in the state of Texas. That’s occurring in West Texas where there are troublesome bears. And they would not be returned to a presumed source.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:22:40] And often we don’t know where these bears might come from, although it’s not a Mexican black bear that’s going to show up in southeast Texas. It’s likely to be the luteolus. If that occurred in southeast Texas, heaven forbid that they’d brought it back. We’d sue them. They wouldn’t do it.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:23:01] No, they would bring it back to… and it’s still being worked on to establish the exact legal place where they could be released, but it would probably be one of the bottom areas, as I talk about in a moment – one of those four areas, in southeast Texas, where you’d be in the river bottoms where it’d be released.


David Todd [01:23:21] Okay.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:23:22] Pre-existing land – not set aside for it, but legally approved to have a release. They would not be bought back to the presumed source.


David Todd [01:23:34] I see. So, they might, if they were trapped in Texas, they would be probably resettled some place in Texas.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:23:42] Correct. Never, never, never has happened yet in southeast Texas or the Northeast, and it probably won’t. In fact, I guarantee it won’t. No. That’s not the program. It’s not the program at all.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:23:55] It’d be actually a welcoming event because the official policy of Texas Parks and Wildlife, in terms of bear management, is natural recolonization. And that process continues.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:24:12] But in the biological world of the black bear, that’s a very slow process, unless it’s aided by certain natural forces, like a drought, which is what brought them back to West Texas out of Mexico.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:24:28] And as we go forward with climate change, maybe in decades ahead, we may see that here. So, we would be bypassing that enormous difficulty of getting the officials, elected officials, and the general population, landowners on board to have an active recovery program for black bear in southeast Texas. That’s a very difficult thing to unfold, to establish.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:25:07] If a natural recolonization process brought the Louisiana black bear to southeast Texas, we would all clap and support that and thank our lucky stars… It may happen.


David Todd [01:25:28] Well, we’ll see, we’ll see.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:25:30] Well, you mentioned “we”, and I’m always curious about the groups that grow up around these issues and concerns. And I think that you have served a group called the Black Bear Alliance in a number of capacities – as president, as treasurer, I think most recently as science advisor. And I’m wondering where that group came from, how it was organized, and what its goals have been over the years, and what some of its accomplishments might have been.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:26:04] And I’ll come back to the recovery effort if you have time for that.


David Todd [01:26:09] Yes.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:26:10] I prefer to put a few more details on that. But as far as the Texas Black Bear Alliance group, there’s a very illustrious history and origin. It was actually birthed, it grew up, in Louisiana back in the ’70s when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had listed the black bear. There already had been activity by local folks to start a group of black bear enthusiasts together as a committee – that was the Louisiana Black Bear Conservation Committee.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:26:47] And Mr. Paul Davidson, who’s currently still the executive director of it, was a very important force in getting that started. That committee became eventually, it’s named a coalition. So, it was the BBCC in which our Alliance has its start.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:27:07] And, the Texas folk joined that Louisiana effort with Mr. Davidson. And amongst many, the two top people that were involved in that, Texas folks, involved with the BBCC back then, and for quite a few years, it’s Dr. Nathan Garner, who worked with Texas Parks and Wildlife at the time, and stayed with the program until 2017. So, he’d been involved since the ‘70s.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:27:42] His background is in black bear research, a manager within Texas Parks and Wildlife, of wildlife and game and non-game. Nathan continues to be interested today. In fact, he retired and lives in Michigan.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:28:01] The other person, from Texas with the BBCC involvement was a professor – Chris Comer.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:28:08] And both of those gentlemen were actually at one time had official positions within the BBCC when there were political differences and difficulties that Mr. Davidson had with the politics of Louisiana black bear recovery. And so, we have a very, very close connection with the BBCC of years back.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:28:38] But eventually the East Texas group formed their own, and that became known, their group, as the “East Texas Black Bear Committee”, and eventually “Task Force”. And it was not an official Texas Parks and Wildlife effort, although they were involved. There was never an official TPWD task force. No report was ever filed with by the East Texas Black Bear Task Force.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:29:13] But they had a very, very major impact on how black bear conservation management went forward from a much earlier start int he ’70s by BBCC.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:29:32] And so eventually the Task Force produced actually an East Texas Black Bear Conservation Management Plan. And it was published in 2005, to be reviewed in ten years. It was a ten-year plan – ’05 to ’15. And when ’15 came around, the Task Force sort of had withered a bit. Nathan Garner was a major driving force within it. And there were many other people from the Forest Service, as well as Fish and Wildlife actually, at the federal level, as well as many other conservation agencies had people interested as a volunteer basis with the East Texas Black Bear Task Force and the creation of this management plan.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:30:31] And I’m going to come back to a study also that evolved out of that management plan.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:30:37] And out of all this, eventually, by 2017, evolved Texas Black Bear Alliance, which was set up by Mr. Garner, Dr. Garner, in 2017, in the early months, and by February, he had registered it as an official, non-profit organization. It had never been recognized as a non-profit organization. And in 2017, in April, within a month, Nathan had organized a non-profit organization, he retired and turned it over to me because, well, I volunteered to be the next chairman.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:31:27] So, Nathan Garner, was chair for the Texas Black Bear Task Force, evolved out of the BBCC and eventually created the Alliance.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:31:37] And by this time, and just as an overview statement about the Alliance, it continues today, but it doesn’t have the participation that was so prevalent back in the heyday years when there was that East Texas Black Bear Task Force, and the evolvement of an East Texas Conservation Management plan, which expired in ’15.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:32:07] And there was no, official document from Texas Parks and Wildlife to take up that plan until just recently the new, it’s not a Texas Black Bear Management Plan, official document plan of Texas Parks and Wildlife, and it was signed in 2022. No. Sorry. It shows on the plan that it was signed in November of ’22. But in fact, the retiring executive director didn’t sign it, and it was signed by a new executive director in January of ’23. That’s our Texas Black Bear Management Plan today.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:32:58] And so, from the ’70s to January ’23, we had this long, convoluted history of organizational structure that ends up with Texas Black Bear Alliance. And it is still active today, but without all that large membership. There were three or four years that I was chair, we would hold meetings that would bring in 65, 70 people to our once or twice a year annual meeting, biannual meeting. And, we’d serve a wonderful lunch and had nice programs. But we weren’t very active in developing beyond that. Didn’t have, I didn’t do that as a chair. I worked with Texas Parks and Wildlife very closely to develop that new existing Texas Black Bear Plan. Anything I did of usefulness was focusing our Alliance effort, without a lot of people, but a number of people were involved with that, to develop a Texas Black Bear Management Plan that exists today.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:34:19] And there are six goals in that, and number six I can take a lot of credit for. And that has the hope of recovering black bear to East Texas.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:34:34] But there are a lot of caveats to that. So, it’s kind of a rambling thing. It’s got a long history. I think it’s alive today. But it’s done a lot in the past.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:34:49] And I want to cover what happened back in the 2010 time frame where a very important study was done that gives us guidance today to how recovery could take place. Let me go over that.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:35:09] Have I answered your question about…


David Todd [01:35:11] Yes. I think it’d be really important to understand kind of what the status quo is and what the steps going forward with the recovery might be. And, maybe this Management Plan discussion will help us understand.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:35:27] Yeah. So, back in the day when Nathan Garner was acting with a lot of folks from different agencies that were volunteers in the Task Force, they’d looked at southeast Texas in particular. It was all focused on East Texas, not even northeast Texas, although a little bit of focus in the northeast Texas, where a north recovery zone was also identified, but particularly in the southeast Texas itself, a south recovery zone was identified and started as early as the ’90s with Nathan Garner, et al. And he and a Mr. Willis published in ’97 a document which defines what are called “focal areas” in the so-called south recovery zone.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:36:23] And if you look and if your mind can picture southeast Texas, the south recovery zone would be roughly south of Tyler between two major rivers, the Trinity and the Sabine, all the way to Highway 10. You’ve got ten and a half million acres of habitat that was defined as focal areas. It had a middle Neches River identity, a Longleaf Ridge area and a flatwoods focal area.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:36:55] And of that ten million acres, a very, very important study was funded by Texas Parks and Wildlife and I don’t know who else, but I think major funding was out of Texas Parks and Wildlife. Graduate student Dan Kaminski at SFA, Stephen F. Austin State University, did a study of black bear, potential black bear habitat. And he defined recovery units within focal areas.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:37:28] And there are, of those ten million acres of all of South recovery zone, focal areas of good potential bear habitat, half of that, about five, roughly, 5.3 or so, million acres, focal areas. Recovery units within that boil down to about a half a million acres, 472.8, to be exact, of recovery units. And there are four of them.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:38:03] And guess what? They are in bottomlands. They are defined as the Middle Neches River area, the Lower Neches River area, and the Middle Neches is roughly north of the so-called “Forks”, where the Angelina comes in from the Neches River and, roughly, the Steinhagen Reservoir dam area north is middle Neches and then the Lower Neches south to the Big Thicket. And that area would be, the Lower Neches River. So, it’s divided by Highway 190 and the Dam, you’ve got Middle Neches and Lower Neches. Both of those areas are natural drainage area, two major areas for recovery – recovery units within that.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:39:02] And then you have the lower Trinity River, which is actually is the Trinity Wildlife Refuge, the National Wildlife Refuge and its environment. So, there’s, you know, thousands of acres down in there.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:39:15] And then the lower Sabine River as well, as a great area where recovery units were defined by Dan Kaminski published in 2011. And Dan Kaminski is a professor of biology and wildlife in Iowa, at the University of Iowa. And still very active in that.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:39:40] But he defined, based on the flora of east Texas, his study focused on the habitats that the black bear prefers and the kind of vegetation it seeks for its prime vegetarian diet.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:40:03] And where would that be located? And he ended up defining four recovery units – the Middle Neches River, the Lower Neches River, the Lower Trinity River, and the Lower Sabine River.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:40:16] They’re all bottomlands. And there is almost a half a million acres in that.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:40:22] How much would you need, if you brought in a couple of females with cubs, and you let them breed and expand, what would it take to get a stabilized population growth? You only need 50,000 acres.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:40:39] And about (you know, this is off the top of my head), a few, a dozen or so, females, with cubs, starting it, bringing them in with a process called winter den removal technique. You’d bring them in from Louisiana, for example, to a predetermined area, let’s say in the Middle Neches River. And you’d pick of the Middle Neches River, there are 95,000 acres. There are within those units, that unit is subdivided into nine subunits. And between Highway 59 and 69, there is 50,000 acres. If you brought females into that area, just a couple, and protected them, and beforehand, got approval and support of locals, the landowners and the general public, within 25 years, you would have what probably Louisiana bears up to something like a couple of hundred bears anyway, or more.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:41:52] Louisiana has a few more because it started with an established population and made a major, major effort made to expand. But if you’re just bring in bears to 50,000 acres in the middle of nature recovery units that Dan Kaminski identified in a graduate study, we would have bears in East Texas.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:42:17] The trouble is lots of headaches to get that started. And as the program speaker for our annual meeting, in January, last year, the speaker said it’s difficult, complicated. And that was a summary of goal number six of the state bear management plan and talked no more.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:42:47] So, is the state going to activate their own management plan, recovery plan, that is potentially in a written document? It’s going to be difficult. It’s complicated.


David Todd [01:43:03] Well, let’s talk about that. I’m curious. You’ve thought about this a lot, probably talked to a lot of the members of the public and the research community. What is the public attitude about bear recovery and return, especially if it’s artificially done, if there’s some intervention, some kind of reintroduction? What do you think the public thinks about that in Texas?


Adrian Van Dellen [01:43:33] Well, we have an inkling, because studies have begun – the so-called human dimension studies. There were, I think there were three. There was one major one that was conducted in East Texas by professionals out of Michigan State University. I forgot exactly the name of that study, but it established that there was a considerable interest in black bear restoration. But interestingly enough, as far as the population’s interest, is where they didn’t reside. And it is where you live and where the Dallas folks are located. There was more interest for black bear restoration recovery for East Texas by outside folks.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:44:24] For those living in East Texas, the study showed that it was less than 50% interest. It was high. It was high.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:44:32] And interesting about that, is that this always comes up in terms of Texas Parks and Wildlife’s concerns and interest and being active in restoration. In fact, when Nathan Garner got that Task Force to get the Task Force Plan written, Dr. Cook, Executive Director of Texas Parks and Wildlife at that time, said, “I can’t sign this unless, unless we can show that there’s at least 70% interest in recovering the black bear by the landowners, the locals, and the elected officials, and so forth.”


Adrian Van Dellen [01:45:18] My response to that is you can’t get 70% of people in the same ice cream, let alone bringing black bear back.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:45:28] So, there’s, there’s an extended amount, extensive amount, of fear within the general population about black bear. And yet, it’s unfounded. And I just refer you to Dr. Lynn Rogers and all he’s written, and the movies actually made with him working with his so-called study bears that the black bear is not a serious threat. It can live peaceably with humans.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:46:01] In fact, the number of deaths from black bear since the early 1900s to present time is less than 100. This week, there will be that many car wrecks and deaths, probably, in the United States.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:46:22] And so, I think in terms of any hope to get black bear back to southeast Texas, or to east Texas in general…


Adrian Van Dellen [01:46:34] You know, it’s already happening in West Texas. That’s okay. And it’s a very loose, very sparse density of people living there. So, the problems are much, much less. Here, we have a dense population, and people are afraid and that is reinforced by the stories that are untrue or amplified.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:47:06] So what is the solution? Education. Number one is education. And without actually reading the actual Bear Management Plan that Texas has published, now goal number six is that we as an agency will bring back, actively bring back, the black bear to east Texas, if it shows that natural colonization is not occurring.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:47:35] And it is not occurring at any pace that is reasonable or we could expect in decades ahead to have the black bear back to southeast Texas.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:47:46] So, what are the caveats as to get an approving general population, specifically landowners, and the elected officials? Get them educated about the benefits, the risks and so forth of black bear recovery. And when you get (you don’t need 70%, I would think) … if you got half, as many as there are interested in this in Dallas, also in East Texas, I think we could get Texas Parks and Wildlife active.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:48:27] Of course, we need money. That was not a caveat. We need money for that. But hopefully with the federal efforts to get the Black Bear Recovery Act passed and millions of dollars into the coffers of Texas, that’ll help.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:48:43] So, I never see money as the problem. I don’t think it’ll be a money issue in the future.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:48:49] It’ll be an issue of getting the people behind it – not even the agency behind it. I think what we should do is what I’ll do the rest of my life is to try to get the landowners of the Middle Neches, specifically those in that subset of that recovery unit, something like 50,000 acres of potential habitat to bring bear back. If you start with the landowners there to get them behind the program, get Texas Parks and Wildlife engaged with them, talk about the potential!


Adrian Van Dellen [01:49:29] How can it work? Let’s talk about the plan. That’s what’s needed. If that happens, we’re going to have recovery of black bear in southeast Texas within ten, 20 years.


David Todd [01:49:44] You know, it…


Adrian Van Dellen [01:49:45] That’s my hope.


David Todd [01:49:47] Well, you seem to be focusing here on education and trying to get landowners and the general public more aware and comfortable with black bears. And I wonder if you could talk about one of the tools that you’ve worked with over the years and that’s your landscape and wildlife photography. And I’d be curious to know how you see the photography. I mean it’s an art in its own sake – you know, the composition and the color and the contrast and so on. But then there’s this other side of your photography, which is, you know, as an advocacy tool, as an education kind of strategy. And maybe you can talk about those two sides of what you do with your camera.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:50:38] Well, a camera tells a story. It tells the story as the operator behind the lens has seen it. And I tried to actually engage myself in that. I’m glad I’m comfortable behind a camera. It’s a natural for me.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:50:59] And it brings me into the landscape where I am most comfortable. And that’s actually the wild area. I can live on the Neches River for a week, ten days at a time, with minimal support and resources like food and so forth. As long as my cameras work and I get a good night’s rest, I’m at home.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:51:23] It is for art’s sake, for sure. I try to focus for that artistic, you know, blow-you-away kind of image, but much of it is just recording the ecology, the natural habitat, and that requires skills.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:51:47] And some of it is an extreme. I’ve gone to that level. I realized from my, oh, almost 30 years now affiliated very closely with the Neches River that the great blue heron, for example, will nest not only on the lower levels, like it does along the coast – shrubs and so forth – but it nests in the top of eighty or 90- foot pine trees and has colonies up there. And I identified about six locations in the upper reaches of the Middle Neches over the years.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:52:28] And it already goes back five, six years now and I decide I need to get one of my camera traps closer to one of those nests. They’re not quite as big as the eagle nest, but they’re quite large. The great blue heron stands almost two feet tall. And when you have a three-, four-month old fledgling in one of those nest, you can hardly see it. And there may be three in there.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:52:56] So, it’s quite a large focus for a camera, but it’s way up there in that tree. So, I decided to climb an 85-foot pine tree, and I taught myself over six months to do what’s called single rope climbing technique. Got all the ascenders and descenders and technique. And practiced my knots and made sure I had life-support knots down pat.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:53:25] And I went to the top of those trees, I inserted two cameras and got beautiful pictures. Unfortunately, after a year, lightning struck. Maybe because I had that piece of metal camera up there, it drew a lightning strike, and killed this beautiful pine tree. It had about, it was about 18, 20 inches diameter at the base, chest-high base.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:53:58] So, it is getting to the subject. It is immersing yourself in the subject. It is taking the skills that come naturally to me and looking for the best photograph that would blow you away, but most of it is just recording what’s out there.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:54:20] And when you bring that to the public, they realize the enormous resource that’s there for them all to enjoy, which is their birthright. Texans’ birthright is extensive for the Texan. He’s got enormous birthright.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:54:37] But amongst that, is recovering the black bear. The black bear’s a birthright. Existence of a black bear in Texas is a birthright. And I talk about that sometimes. And I think that’s important.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:54:50] I try to record that and have fun along the way. And it’s just part of my life now.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:54:58] I’m not sure if I answered your kind of philosophical question, but, to me, it’s just not work. It’s, you know, a life’s work coming to a focus, and I’m so happy that it is something in nature as grand as a black bear.


David Todd [01:55:21] It’s very nice to share that. I mean, so many people may see the Neches on a map, but they never get the chance to spend a week or ten days immersed in it, as you say.


David Todd [01:55:31] And I think one of the things I wanted to ask you about was this recent project, where you’ve moved from still images to moving pictures – this film that you’re collaborating on with Curtis Craven and Ellen Temple. I think it’s called, “Life on the Neches River”. And, I was curious how that project came about and what it’s, you know, what sort of goals you might have for it.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:56:03] It’s, again, exciting for me. It’s kind of a side gig. But I’m so happy that it’s focused on the Neches River. And it’s right up my alley, as you say.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:56:14] And I can thank Ellen Temple for that. Now, the Temple family, as you probably are well aware, is associated with the Neches River. Historically, it was a logging empire. The Neches River was their central focus of their logging empire.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:56:39] And Ellen doesn’t forget that, even though she’s late in her life as well. She has a number of projects, but one of them is to commission a film about the Neches River that would feature a couple of special folks who are associated with it – the protagonists of this film, for example. And I may be one of those, at least that seems to be evolving. But, it is essentially about putting together folks that are well known as lovers of the Neches River, with that very unique habitat.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:57:25] And a very unique and special person was actually commissioned for that, and he is Curtis Craven, who’s kind of a rebel cinematographer in a sense. He … has worked alone more than he has for agencies, but at one time was employed by Texas Parks and Wildlife.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:57:49] He now does individual gigs. He just recently finished a story about Texas, east Texas, cowboys. Wow! Not west Texas cowboys, East Texas cowboys. And of course, cowboy history and cattle driving actually has its origin in East Texas. So, Curtis’ film portrays ongoing cowboying in East Texas.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:58:21] And he’s now shifting. He’s done with that. He’s got the drafts out of it. It’ll come out in public showings very soon.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:58:33] And Ellen has commissioned him now to focus in on the Neches River. We’ve gotten started. I’m committed to support that logistically, for the most part. It’s not my project. So, I provide the platform, a floating platform with my boat on the Neches. And try like the devil to get Curtis into a canoe, but that’s difficult with his big camera equipment. We’ll survive with that. We’ll still succeed.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:59:06] But, mostly Craven will focus on people. That’s his specialty. But what he does is he relates that to the environment in which he works, and when that’s done on the Neches River, we’re going to get a very nice story about current and past history even, about the Neches River and its people.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:59:29] So, I’m excited about this. We’re going to have to slow down a little bit here in the summertime, but we’ve already got started in the spring and got some good footage of the flooding that has taken place. Not actually record flooding. We didn’t get record flooding, but the river went up to 18 feet. At the beginning of this month, it was at 18 feet. It’s down, to six feet again.


Adrian Van Dellen [01:59:56] So, it can rise and fall at six inches a day. So, it’s very dynamic – that, hopefully, will come out in the film, as well as the dynamics of the different people that live and work currently and have on the Neches River.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:00:12] So, I’m very excited. We have about a year timeline on this thing. So, it’ll go into next year, but by the end of next year, we should have it all in the can and it’ll be put together.


David Todd [02:00:25] That’s great. Well, a good story to be told and preserved. I mean, it’s, as you say, it’s a dynamic place, and the culture shifts, so it’s nice to get that captured.


David Todd [02:00:37] So, not only are you a photographer, but, you’ve helped write a number of books, and I wanted to just highlight the “Neches River User Guide”, and “Let the River Run Wild: Saving the Neches”, which you played a part in both. And I was hoping you could talk about those two books, and also the people that that you worked with. I think that Gina Donovan, Stephen Lange, and, of course, Mr. Abernethy, who was so well known in folklore circles, and I think Thad Sitton would be another character that you’ve worked with. Any stories there that you might like to share?


Adrian Van Dellen [02:01:22] Well, when you talk about special people and special books, you hit a very popular theme for me.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:01:32] The Neches River User Guide again was not my project. I supported Gina’s efforts, dream, to develop a guide for users of the Neches Rivers – paddlers and others on the Neches River. And so, it got funded, her project. At the time, she was employed by Texas Conservation Alliance. And Janice Bezanson, another one of my favorite people, helped put that into play. And, Gina needed somebody to follow up on her dad’s work, called “Paddling the Neches”, which resulted in them “Paddling the Wild Neches”, by Richard Donovan.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:02:18] But what he didn’t do is he didn’t bring along his GPS, so there were no GPS coordinates available for important points on the Neches River like its 18 crossings, for example, the pipelines and all these interesting features that would be nice to coordinate.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:02:42] So, I repeated Richard’s float. Gina sent me off downriver back in the day at the starting point at the dam of the river upstream. And over 18 days, if it was run straight, but covering several months, I paddled the entire trip again as Richard had done. And Gina published the Nature Guide, and she was lucky to know Stephen Lange, who at the time was working for Texas Parks and Wildlife – was a cartographer and a mapmaker. So, he produced the maps for us and the official points that are recognized on a good map. And we inserted also the GPS points. And so that was birthed over, eh, it was about a three- to four-year project as well.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:03:47] But a very useful guide. It’s popular. It’s very functional. And no one that hopes to paddle on the Neches River should leave without it.


David Todd [02:03:58] Good to have, it sounds like.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:03:59] Let the River Run Wild… Say that again?


David Todd [02:04:02] No, I was just saying that it’s a very wild place. It’s nice to have a guide.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:04:09] Yes, it really is, because it gives you segments of the river that can be paddled in chunks, like 15 miles at a time, and you’ll know where to go on the river and take out – put-ins and take-out points, for example. And you can plan your days on the river very well with it and have some idea.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:04:33] You know, it’s interesting that the picture on that Guide on the front shows the river with my canoe on the back. And when I was paddling to get the data, the GPS data, I didn’t have a clue where that bridge was which was ahead of me. So, I got out with my life vest on and this funny looking hat, and got on top of that bridge. And a pickup came along and stopped, and he says, he ask, “Are you lost?” I said, “Yup. Where am I?” And, he pointed that out. Became one of my close friends.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:05:12] But, you don’t really need it if you’re an explorer. If you are safe and comfortable on your own. But to have that Guide, you won’t have to ask.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:05:24] So, Let the River Run Wild. Sorry about that. I interrupted. What did you say, David?


David Todd [02:05:30] Please go ahead. So, tell us about Let the River Run Wild, another great book.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:05:37] Yeah, that book started when I began to take the kids, teenage children, particularly, my youngest son, and the older son, to East Texas to fish back in the ’80s, when they were growing up as teenagers. And I already photographed then. And then, upon retiring, I continued. So, by the time we got to a point where Dr. Abernethy, who was a retired professor at Stephen F. Austin State University, got involved, I already had a large catalog of photographs of the Neches River. But we didn’t have a writer. And there was no organizational structure to it.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:06:31] And I had known Dr. Abernethy just briefly from a time when he invited himself on one of the guiding I had done, I had planned for a given time. He invited himself and he showed up. I was delighted to meet him. I knew of him. So, I knew of him when the question was, who’s going to write for a potential story about all these pictures I have? And I basically visited him at his office there still, as professor emeritus at Stephen F. Austin. And he jumped on that like a tick on a skin, you know.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:07:12] He said, “Boy, that’s a great project. I could relive my youth.” He knew the river from his youth, but not of late. When he returned from World War II, one of the first things he did was put a raft together with his best friend, and they floated the river from highway 59 to 69. And interestingly enough, that’s a 50-mile stretch that now I think is the prime place to first recover the black bear to east Texas.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:07:46] But Ab, as he was known, and he died short of 90 years old a few years ago. But, you know, short of being, as I told you, in South Africa for four years as the highlight of my life, I can tell you without hesitation, the next is spending about two or three years with Ab on the river reacquainting himself with that river. We floated the river from up in Lake Palestine, at the dam, all the way down to the Gulf, over the next couple of years. And sometimes three, four, five days at a time.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:08:34] He was already in his mid-80s. He was 85 or so when he started, and game as can be – like a young man. I’d help him cross over those logjams and he never hesitated. So, I just can’t tell you the joy I had, plus the experience of learning this very smart man’s history of East Texas not only, but the river as well, and all the things that he knew so well.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:09:10] He was a specialist in classic literature. He was an English teacher, English professor. And he talked all the time. But more than that, he hummed a tune all the time. So, very happy-go-lucky, engaging gentleman. If you look at the Neches River book, I call it, Let the River Run Wild, the photograph will impress you. But don’t forget to read it. Ab did a wonderful job, helping organize that. He basically put a scrapbook together. But the editor, who is still the chief editor of the press, at Stephen F. Austin State University, Kim Bryans. Kimberly actually organized that book from a scrapbook and basically designed that book with me sitting alongside of her, feeding picture after picture after picture.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:10:15] But she had Ab’s text and then you put that together, there’s an eight and a half by eleven coffee table picture book that is a pleasure to read. I would offer it to you, as much as the pictures, the writing’s a great, great experience of my life.


David Todd [02:10:40] That’s great. Well, you’re lucky to have spent time with these important people in the history of East Texas.


David Todd [02:10:48] Well, I’m curious, as you look back over your life in nature and for nature, I wonder what stands out as important. Are there some things that you’ve learned that you’d want to share?


Adrian Van Dellen [02:11:05] Oh yeah, I do. But before I do that I actually skipped over, and because it’s actually finished, but I left the Neches for about four years during the Covid years. But that is working with Thad Sitton. Another young lady, Cynthia Nesser, she and I and Thad, are the authors, pending publication of a book called Krause Ranch and the Frio River Hill Country. And it’s about a ranch put together by a landowner, Gary Krause, of about, eh, you know, we’re in Texas, 2000 acres, but it’s actually about 1740 acres of western Hill Country, in Frio County.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:12:03] And, that was a different experience because, you know, when you trip over there, you’re going to get a bloody nose, and here in East Texas, it’s going to be muddy. So, it’s a totally different habitat. It’s dry. It’s a wonderful ranch that is in a conservation easement.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:12:24] And I was privileged to photograph there with my 35-millimeter equipment. I bought a dozen camera traps and two drones. So it’s another picture book, about almost 200 pictures in that book. But again, I think, what’ll grab you is the pictures, but don’t forget to read it. That’s done by Thad Sitton, the oral historian of of fame here in East Texas. This man’s written something like 26 books. Professor of literature at the University of Texas. And Thad is late 80s, 90s now, still active and did a wonderful job of exploring the history of the Hill Country and the development of ranch land and specifically about Krause Ranch. It’s a nice story.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:13:31] And when that book comes out, I’m going to again have fun. But again, don’t forget to read it. Thad Sitton’s the author of that.


David Todd [02:13:39] Great. Well, you’ve been a good collaborator and supporter and colleague on these number of books about the natural world.


David Todd [02:13:50] And so, I did want to just see if there’s a way that you could sum up all these different activities you’ve had from, you know, different books, films, trips, you know, advocacy. Is there a way you can summarize some of these efforts on behalf of nature and particularly the black bear?


Adrian Van Dellen [02:14:15] Well, I’d make a couple of points. I think one I’d make about the black bear is that I think that the black bear is a much higher, sentient animal, intelligent and gentle creature, than most humans ascribe to it. I’m not alone in this feeling of course, and conviction, but I want to transmit my thoughts and feelings to others who don’t have that. And, what has evolved is my passion to do that. And I’m able to do it because of my very diverse background and work and passion.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:15:03] But what stands out, I suppose, it’s kind of a focal point, is my interest in biological diversity. In my photographs, that’s what I hope to record – biological diversity, flora and fauna. And, what stands out is it’s coming to understand the value of biological diversity. So important. And it’s one of our very, very serious dangers in the world today. It’s part of the global warming phenomenon, when we lose biological diversity. It’s so important to record the little way I can do that what is there in an artistic and scientific way.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:15:57] So, I support many organizations, and have over the years, but particularly now, my favorite one is now the Center for Biological Diversity. It’s a group of essentially, lawyers, that evolved out of the Sierra Club, who are very active today in advocating for biological diversity. You know, they work through the legal system, with the legal system, to protect our flora and fauna. And I’m a part of that.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:16:33] So, they asked me if I would be a standing declarant. You’re an attorney, so I think you know what that means. Right? You basically represent the area that they are suing the Fish and Wildlife Service with, for example, about something and I’m a declarant for three species, one of them is the screwstem texana, a species so-called scientific name screwstem texana, which is a screwstem plant only about six inches tall. Nice beautiful white flower. It lives in swampy areas, wetlands, and it is endemic to western Louisiana and eastern Texas, and is known to be present somewhere where I trod along the Neches River. I’ve never seen it, but I’m keeping my eye out for it. And I’m a standing declarant for it. Currently the Fish and Wildlife Service is being sued to get on the ball and get that listed. It’s not listed, protected, but it is endangered for sure. Very rare.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:17:47] And then I’m really excited about this. It just evolved in the last month or so. I’m also a declarant for two mussels that definitely need listing, which would represent so many of the freshwater mussels that are endangered. And, those two of the declarant for is the Texas heelsplitter and the Louisiana pigtoe. And both of them, will probably, with the efforts of the Center for Biological Diversity and others, become listed. And it’s certainly true they are endangered. Threatened, for sure, if not endangered. Anyway, there should be listed within years.


David Todd [02:18:38] So, that’s important to give these non-profit groups standing so that they can make the case for these rare creatures and flora as well. Well, good.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:18:51] Well, interesting enough, David, I have to say this and not in jest, but I’m a member of and contribute to so many organizations, but I’ve come down to those that consist of lawyers. Why? Because we’ve got to have the law and then defend it. Unless we do that, human nature is such that we kind of forget about those resources that are life-sustaining. Not only for our sustenance, but for our enjoyment, if not just for the creatures and the plants, for their own sake.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:19:37] So, yeah. At this point in my life, I say the lawyers are my best friends now.


David Todd [02:19:45] As an attorney myself, I love hearing from people who like lawyers. You know, we’re the butt of many jokes.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:19:54] Well, I know.


David Todd [02:19:55] This is a good lead-in. You know, when you think about wildlife, and I think we could take black bears as an example here, how do you see their importance to you? Their value? I mean, some people look at their certain ecological role, their cog in the bigger world around them. Some people see it as kind of an ethical call that appeals to their moral compass. For some people, it’s something much more personal, spiritual. And I’m wondering where you fall. I mean, what does wildlife, and particularly black bears, mean to you?


Adrian Van Dellen [02:20:41] Well, it’s … it’s cliche and trite to say, but it’s life itself actually because advocating for our natural resources is self-serving, if nothing else. And, the human needs that. And we get too busy with all our projects of what kind – who knows, from diving into our pleasures, to even exploring the cosmos. But we forget about the fact we live on a very unique planet.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:21:22] I just recently learned, for example, that there are bacteria two miles down, underneath the Earth in a mantle that eat rock. They live on rock. They get their everything from rock. Think about that. Isn’t that astounding?


Adrian Van Dellen [02:21:40] Since I graduated, the explosion of knowledge about the biology of the bioflora on and in our body has just exploded. We’ve come to understand we depend upon our vital flora just for our immunity. And we don’t stop to think enough about what fell in that river. There is so much that is below what our eyes see, and our ears can hear, and our touch can feel. There’s even more. I could never put it on my images. It’s not there. But it is there to appreciate and to enjoy and to protect.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:22:34] So, I do all that, with the little time I have left and in the small way that I do. I think it’s life itself. For me, it’s not work. It’s not even fun. It’s just it. I do it because that’s me.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:22:50] And it’s important because it’s not just for me. It’s for the creatures and the plants and all that by itself. And for all the other humans that should take notice.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:23:03] I’m not alone of course in that. It’s not at all special to me. I am so glad that the young people that are coming on that are out there today are as much engaged with protecting and restoring the natural resources than folks have ever been.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:23:28] So, I’m happy to be here at my stage in life, but glad there’s a generation or two coming along to follow up and do even better, because the challenges are big ahead. And that’s the philosophy of it. I’ve been just glad I’ve been a small part of it.


David Todd [02:23:47] Yes. I love your thought about this, that it’s not about just, you know, ourselves, but these other animals and the rest of the public, and, of course, to the next generation.


David Todd [02:24:01] So one last question. This may be kind of a detour, but it’s fascinating to know that not only do you have this interest and love for an animal that’s 200 pounds, more or less, but that you have had this life studying these very small zoonotic creatures that, you know, can infect us. And, I think about the Covid experience that we all went through over the last three or four years and how that has been such a powerful reminder of the role of nature in us. And, I’m wondering what you took away from that experience, given your specialty in pathology.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:24:50] Yeah. Because I am so single-focused, I would wrap it up and keep focus on the black bear.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:25:00] I would share with you what was written by a William Ashworth in a picture book by Arch Wolf, so well-known for his animal photography, of course. And it’s a book about bears, their life and behavior.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:25:22] And so, there are three good reasons why we need and keep black bears – just sums me up too. And that is this:


Adrian Van Dellen [02:25:31] It is written that “we keep bears around because although the environment may not need them, the human spirit does. And we need them because the mountains are too empty without them, the wilderness too tame, the night too secure. Because without the bear to compete with us, and who would we compete with? Without the bear, we will no longer have any real excuse for being human.”


Adrian Van Dellen [02:26:26] We need all that. And it represents everything in nature, all our natural resources. It really comes down to natural resources. Without it, we’re toast. The bear is just a small picture of that, and it’s what I can focus on. It gives me pleasure. It gives me joy. I could practice my skills. And I can bring along others with it. And I hope it brings me a lot of fun in the years ahead.


David Todd [02:27:03] Okay. Well, we certainly have covered a lot of ground. Thank you so much.


David Todd [02:27:10] Is there anything else that you might want to add that occurs to you now that I may not have given full shrift to?


Adrian Van Dellen [02:27:29] Well, it’s been kind of a simplified overview. But, you know, I got a real epiphany. I guess you’re looking for something of that order. When I fell the other day over some equipment that I was using to fix the trailer to my boat that had a part stolen from it. I’d been on the river with Curtis Craven, and we came back after two hours on the river, and I noticed that the back guide posts on the back of the trailer that you used to guide reloading your boat, had been stolen. Actually, had to unbolt two half-inch bolts to steal it. They did.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:28:29] So I was repairing it. And, I had built the original, kind of a unique little device with the lights on it and everything, and I tripped over it, and I fell forward, collapsed on my knee, but mostly my right hand took the fall.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:28:51] It’s been a month now. I’ve got it working again. My hand is less painful.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:28:57] But what epiphany definitely came on that, David? This is the last word. You have got to have your health, to do any of this.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:29:09] I’ve been lucky. I’ve broken my neck, my back. I’ve had a number of surgeries beyond that, and I’ve come back every time. I’ve been, in 2 or 3 situations where I was going to be dead within second, no question.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:29:30] I was on that Neches River bridge between Woodville and Jasper, and a logging truck was barreling down at me at 50 miles an hour in my lane. But somehow, just before we were about to hit – two seconds – he switched to the right lane again, the correct lane. I’d have been dead.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:29:53] So, I’ve been lucky.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:29:54] But the point I’m making is I’m just lucky to be alive. I’m lucky to be healthy. And that’s the bottom line. No matter how many interviews I do, how many photographs I still take, it all comes down to my health. And I’m grateful beyond measure. That’s the bottom line.


David Todd [02:30:16] Yeah. No, that’s essential. And, you know, it’s nice to have your health, but it’s important, as you have, to take advantage of it and to use every day.


David Todd [02:30:30] So, thank you for your time today and for sharing all these good memories and insights. I am very grateful myself. Thank you.


Adrian Van Dellen [02:30:42] Thank you very much, David.


David Todd [02:30:46] All right. Well, I’m going to turn off the recording and let you go work on your trailer or maybe go have lunch.