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Louisiana Black Bear Recovery: Don’t Feed the Bears
Photo courtesy of P. McIlhenny
When folks in Patterson, Louisiana see an old white pick-up truck with a “Don’t Feed Bears” bumper sticker, they know that Catherine Siracusa is on patrol. Siracusa is the Black Bear Conflict Officer for coastal St. Mary Parish (county), Louisiana—home to some of the best seafood in the country and also to a population of the federally threatened Louisiana black bear (Ursus americanus luteolus).
In southern Louisiana, people “laissez le bon temps rollez” (let the good times roll) at festivals and family celebrations feasting on anything from fresh shrimp and boiled crawfish to duck gumbo and spicy jambalaya. Even the local black bears know a good thing when they see it and when the party – and its associated trash – is over for humans; the good times start to roll for the bears. That is until two years ago, when the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) partnered with the Parish to implement a bear-proofing program.
Louisiana black bears, historically found from East Texas into Mississippi, were listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1992. At that time, nearly 80 percent of their bottomland hardwood habitat had been converted to agriculture. That habitat loss coupled with inadequate protection against over-hunting reduced the bears’ distribution to three small isolated breeding populations in northern, central and coastal Louisiana.
Since that time, remarkable progress has been made towards recovering this species. Two of the three breeding populations are believed to be stable to increasing. A fourth breeding population has been established in north-central Louisiana, the result of a cooperative reintroduction effort among the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), LDWF, the Black Bear Conservation Coalition, Louisiana and Tennessee state universities, the U.S. Geological Survey and others. Also, a fifth breeding population is forming naturally in Mississippi.
Photo Credit: P. Davidson, BBCC
Habitat restoration efforts began almost simultaneously with the bear’s listing. More than 200,000 acres (81, 000 hectares) have been restored in Louisiana and Mississippi via voluntary cooperation of private landowners enrolled in the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Wetland Reserve Program. Even with that, in southern Louisiana, high ground is limited; a fact that places black bears in close proximity to residential areas.
Louisiana black bears are opportunistic feeders. Pecans, acorns, berries and grasses and occasional carrion are their basic diet but they also find human garbage, with its left-over food, very enticing. Nuisance behavior (i.e., bears in garbage cans and industrial dumpsters) has been a long-standing concern for this community and for the agencies responsible for bears – LDWF and the Service. If bears are allowed to continue nuisance behavior, they may lose their fear of people and have to be removed from the population; furthermore, bears will teach their young to continue this same behavior.
As bear numbers and complaints increased LDWF realized they need to change from reactive to proactive methods: They purchased bear-proof containers and hired a conflict officer, Catherine, to work with local waste contractors and citizens in practicing effective bear-proofing systems.
“This is just an outstanding program …we couldn’t do without it. If it weren’t for this program, we wouldn’t have bear habitat left here – people just wouldn’t tolerate the nuisance behavior” says Parish President Paul Naquin, Jr. Before this program the parish was getting several calls a day from very upset people, now they may get one or two a month.
This is not your typical story of endangered species recovery, but it does illustrate a universal principle: Recovering a species is a group effort—it cannot be accomplished by any one individual or agency acting alone. Because of the combined group effort the bear population and the community are thriving—each becoming richer through the effective management of the local resources.
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