National Wildlife Refuge System

“Tremendous Progress” on Louisiana Black Bear Habitat

By Mary Tillotson

photo of a black bear cubs
Louisiana black bear cubs and their parents use fallen and hollow trees as dens in bottomland hardwood forest at Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge.
Credit: Janet Ertel/USFWS

Deborah Fuller remembers the Case of the Traveling Bear. A black bear tagged in Florida ambled across Alabama, Mississippi and into Louisiana before wildlife officials caught him and sent him home. That was extraordinary. But Fuller, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species Program coordinator in Lafayette, LA, says even bears that are homebodies must range far and wide for food and mates—up to 80,000 acres for males and 8,000 for females.

So, black bears were hard–hit in the last century by the conversion of their hardwood habitat into agricultural fields. By 1992, the Service declared the Louisiana black bear, which once flourished from east Texas into Mississippi, as threatened with extinction. The Louisiana black bear is one of 16 subspecies of the American black bear.

Nineteen years later, “tremendous progress has been made,” says Fuller, who is optimistic the Louisiana black bear may be taken off the threatened list in five to 10 years.

Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge, established in 2001 in the Atchafalaya River Basin of coastal Louisiana, is the only refuge with the primary mission of preserving and managing Louisiana black bear habitat. On the refuge´s 9,028 acres of bottomland hardwood forest, bears forage for their staples—nuts and berries. Fallen and hollow trees offer them places to den during cold months when they are in a torporous state.

The recovery impact of the refuge is multiplied by corridors that give bears relatively safe passage from forest to forest. Federal and state programs encourage nearby private landowners to preserve their hardwood bottomlands, or to restore that habitat on land that was once agricultural. Since the early 1990s, says Fuller, at least 200,000 acres in Louisiana have been set aside to encourage growth of the bear population.

But, in a landscape fragmented by agricultural and residential development and bifurcated by Interstate 10 and U.S. Route 90, road kills are the primary cause of bear mortality, says Bayou Teche Refuge manager Paul Yakupzack.

There were only three known breeding populations of the Louisiana black bear when it was listed—all in Louisiana, and all considered isolated: the area that includes Bayou Teche Refuge on the coast; an area farther north in the Atchafalaya Basin; and Tensas River Refuge and vicinity in north Louisiana. Fuller says a fourth breeding subpopulation recently has been established in central east Louisiana near Lake Ophelia National Wildlife Refuge. She estimates there are now at least 400 to 700 bears in the state. A study is underway to refine the number, Yakupzack says.

Everybody Wants High Ground

For the Louisiana black bear to be de–listed, says Fuller, wildlife biologists would need to confirm there are at least two viable populations with existing and long–term habitat protection; corridors to support intermingling of the two populations; and sufficient numbers of bears to support the likelihood that 95 percent of the existing population will persist over 100 years.

While habitat preservation/restoration has been a success, Fuller says, “conflict resolution” with the local population “remains our number one issue. There’s not a lot of high ground here, and everybody wants it—including the bears.”

Louisiana black bears are essentially opportunistic vegans. Pecans, acorns, berries and grasses are their basic diet, with the occasional carrion or small mammal thrown in. But human garbage, with its leftover food, can be enticing, and—at several hundred pounds—the bears can be intimidating. Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries actively tries to ameliorate bear–human conflicts, says Fuller, often providing bear–proof garbage dumpsters. And, says Yakupzack, nuisance bears are occasionally trapped and relocated to such public areas as Bayou Teche Refuge.

“You like to think you can just tell people” to dispose of their garbage more carefully so as not to attract bears, says Fuller. “But it’s not that simple … It’s a huge investment of time and effort, convincing people that we want to protect the bears, but that we want to protect them, too.”

Mary Tillotson is a regular contributor to Refuge Update.

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Refuge Update March/April 2011

Last updated: April 12, 2011