SAFE for Bears and Landowners
On June 23, Mississippi landowners can earn incentives by enrolling eligible cropland in a new program called SAFE designed to restore habitat for the federally protected black bear.
Back in January, Mississippi was granted funding to restore 7,950 acres of black bear habitat through the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) program administered by the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA). SAFE is a new nationwide continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) approved to address state and regional high-priority wildlife objectives.
The funding was awarded in response to a proposal spearheaded by The Nature Conservancy of Mississippi (TNC) and the Bear Education and Restoration Group of Mississippi (BEaR) in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks and USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service. Together, these stakeholders devised a restoration strategy that would specifically provide future habitat, on eligible agricultural lands, for the federally endangered Louisiana black bear (Ursus americanus luteolus) and the state protected American black bear (Ursus americanus americanus).
A majority of the enrolled acreage will be dedicated to restoring native bottomland hardwood forests and forested wetlands in portions of the Mississippi Alluvial Valley that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified as important zones for black bear recovery. Practices will create favorable habitat conditions by incorporating a mix of soft- and hard-mast species to provide year-round food sources, creating escape cover and elevated den cavities, providing semi-permanent wetland communities, and contributing to larger-scale formation of habitat and travel corridors for black bear dispersal.
In the past several years, black bear populations have slowly begun building in the western part of Mississippi as bears have migrated across the Mississippi River from Arkansas and Louisiana. Several black bears have been fitted with tracking collars by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP) to monitor bear movement and habitat use. Since 2005, black bears in the state have been successful at reproducing and rearing cubs, showing signs that Mississippi’s once abundant black bear population is rebounding.
“Black bears were once plentiful throughout Mississippi. One of the primary reasons for their decline was loss of habitat over the last 150 years. Today, our state’s bear population is increasing. The habitat provided by programs such as SAFE will help to ensure that Mississippi bears can continue their recolonization of our state’s natural lands,” said Brad Young, the black bear program leader for MDWFP.
“The SAFE program benefits more than bears,” added Shauna Ginger of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Jackson field office. “Habitat restoration for black bears means habitat restoration for other wildlife too, game and non-game. Bears are like an umbrella species, and if an area can support bears, it is healthy enough to support most all of Mississippi’s native wildlife.”
Bo Sloan, Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge manager and BEaR vice president agrees. “The SAFE program will provide quality habitat for bears on private land while providing substantial financial incentives to private landowners. It’s a win-win situation, and an excellent opportunity to teach people what black bear restoration is all about,” Sloan said.
Financial incentives available to landowners enrolling in SAFE include annual rental payments on enrolled acreage, a $100 per acre sign-up incentive paid upon enrollment, 50 percent cost share, plus additional practice incentives. Landowners are required to sign a 10- to 15-year contract for all lands enrolled in SAFE.
Landowners interested in finding out more about the SAFE program for Mississippi are encouraged to contact their local FSA offices for eligibility requirements and program specifics. For additional information about black bear restoration efforts in Mississippi, visit BEaR’s website at www.msbear.org.
The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov.
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