The Lousiana Black Bear

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story by TREY ILES
photos by STEVE UFFMAN

BACK FROM THE BRINK

After almost 25 years, the Louisiana bear was removed in April 2016 from
the list of species protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Like many boys always causing trouble for their parents, young male Louisiana black bears can cause Maria Davidson no end of trouble. Davidson, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Large Carnivore Program Manager, said these particular bears love to roam and explore. Doesn’t matter when or where and sometimes that means startling quiet neighborhoods at all hours.

“Young male bears, from a year-and-a-half to three-and-a-half years old, can go anywhere when they disperse from their mothers’ home range,’’ said Davidson, who oversees the LDWF’s bear management program. “They’re young teenage boys that are just out walking. They just go. And they can walk great distances crossing roads and busy highways; sometimes walking right through neighborhoods and congested downtowns. Some of them make the phone ring 20 times a day.’’

A problem to be sure but, as Davidson points out, an indication of the recovery of the Louisiana black bear. In fact, it’s one of many signs the animal, listed as threatened almost 25 years ago, has roared back.

In April of this year, the Louisiana black bear was officially removed from the list of species protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 24 years (1992) after being placed on the directory. The Louisiana black bear is a subspecies of black bear unique to Louisiana, western Mississippi and eastern Texas.

Davidson estimates that there are between 700 - 1,000 bears in the state now, primarily in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley.

When the Louisiana black bear was listed under the ESA due to habitat loss, reduced quality of remaining habitat and human-related mortality, the three known breeding subpopulations were confined to the bottomland hardwood forests of Louisiana in the Tensas, and Upper and Lower Atchafalaya river basins. Those original subpopulations have all increased in number and have stable to increasing growth rates. Additional breeding subpopulations have developed in Louisiana and Mississippi, providing a healthier long-term outlook for the subspecies.

The Louisiana black bear continues to be state protected so shooting one will still bring penalties of up to $10,000.

“When I started, we only had bears in three isolated populations,’’ said Davidson, who was honored earlier this year as a 2015 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Champion for her work. “So knowing how much the population has grown and expanded its range during the recovery period of management is really special. That’s huge to me. I know the actions we have taken as a department with our partners in conservation have been key to the relatively rapid recovery of our Louisiana black bear.”

Officials said the move to remove the animal from the list came because of a combination of partnerships with LDWF, private landowners, conservation groups, universities and federal agencies that led to more bears and more subpopulations of bears meeting recovering requirements.

LDWF Secretary Charlie Melancon and Davidson agree the collaboration was vital. But so, too, was the reality that this is what the people of Louisiana wanted, they said.

“There’s a different mindset with most Louisianans and that’s because of the appreciation we have of wildlife in the state,’’ Melancon said. “Many of us grow up hunting and fishing and, early on, we develop a realization and awareness of how important natural resources and wildlife are to our ecosystem. The Louisiana black bear is a perfect example of that. So many people deserve credit for bringing it back. But without the support of the people of Louisiana, it couldn’t happen.’’

It’s easy to like the Louisiana black bear. Most people know the story that has attained legendary status of how the beloved Teddy Bear, a favorite children’s stuffed animal, came to be. In 1902, during a hunting trip near Onward, Miss., President Theodore Roosevelt spared a tethered bear. An editorial cartoon in the Washington Post relayed the story, sparking an idea from a Brooklyn candy store owner to create the Teddy Bear.

Discounting the toy, the general public perceives black bears as lovable lugs with big brown eyes. Bear cubs can melt the heart of almost anyone.

“I don’t know that I can really articulate why people like bears,’’ Davidson said. “I don’t know if bears are just comical to watch and people relate to them. People are drawn to bears. And I think Louisianans like to know there is still enough wildlands in the state to support a bear population.’’

A survey LDWF conducted in 2013 indicated most Louisianans are big bear fans. Of those surveyed, 81 percent said it is important that black bears exist in Louisiana, 75 percent support having them in the state and 72 percent think black bears are an important part of the state’s ecosystem.

“Even in areas where bears and people live in close proximity, the public acceptance was much higher than I thought it would be, according to the survey,’’ Davidson said.

Davidson notes, however, that not everyone is a bear fan. One of the major challenges in bringing back the bear was education and outreach.

“We have a general attitude of yes we want to have them but not in my back yard,’’ Davidson said. “That’s why education and outreach at LDWF is just as an important part of the recovery process as tagging bears and DNA sampling. You have to teach people how to coexist with black bears in a way that the bear population can be sustainable and growing while not infringing too much on the human population.

“When people do their part to keep attractants (such as full garbage containers) secured, they help keep bears wild and out in the woods where they belong.”

The recovery process of the Louisiana black bear has many moving parts. Perhaps none is as important as restoring the condition of the habitat in which they reside, Davidson said. Habitat restoration is front-and-center in Louisiana, especially when it comes to wetlands. But it is also vital to the recovery of the black bear.

“You can’t bring a species like the black bear back unless the health of the habitat in both quality and quantity can sustain it,’’ Davidson said. “If bears are able to thrive in Louisiana that says a lot about our habitat quality. Much of the bear habitat is in bottomland hardwood in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. If that area is a healthy ecosystem then you can have a healthy bear population.’’

Even though the Louisiana black bear is off the endangered species list, the restorative work will continue. The USFWS released a post-delisting monitoring plan for the next seven years to help ensure the bear’s future remains secure.
The work of Davidson and her LDWF team is a key reason the black bear has recovered. But that work won’t get any easier going forward. The level of monitoring required by the USFWS will keep them busy, Davidson said. But this same data will be used for future management decisions so its time well spent.

“We’re transitioning into a monitoring phase now,’’ Davidson said. “That means balancing it between low numbers, high numbers, low social acceptance, high social acceptance. I see us doing that with public input.

“Social acceptance is really the limiting factor in populations for large carnivores. There is only going to be the number of bears on the landscape that people allow. Then there won’t be anymore. You have to balance that with the biology behind it all and public attitude. You reach that balance so that you can have a sustainable bear population without overburdening those that live with them. That’s a delicate balancing act that many states face right now.’’

But Louisiana is trending in the right direction. And the recovery of the Louisiana black bear represents another conservation success story in the Bayou State.

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