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Conservationists from the Natural Resources Conservation Service gather around the hood of a truck to investigate paperwork
Information icon As the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s State Conservationist for Louisiana, Kevin Norton (center) has partnered with many people, to the benefit of the Louisiana black bear.

Easement program a win-win for landowners and black bears

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), there were 308,000 acres in agricultural use in the delta region of Louisiana in 1960; by 1980, the amount of agricultural land had grown more than tenfold, to more than 3.4 million acres. But the expansion of agriculture land production to meet the nation’s food supply also pushed the Louisiana black bear to the edge of extinction.

Kevin Norton, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s state conservationist for Louisiana, calls it “fortuitous” that the USDA began a new program not long after the Louisiana black bear was placed on the endangered species list in 1992. The Wetlands Reserve Program (now the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program-Wetland Reserve Easement Program) is a voluntary easement program that provides technical and financial assistance to private landowners to protect, restore and enhance wetlands in exchange for retiring eligible land from agriculture.

“This is the shining star of our efforts,” Norton says with pride. “The really exciting part is that this program, actually a national program, settled here in Louisiana and accomplished so much.”

Louisiana leads the nation in the total number of acres in the program – from zero in 1993 to 302,000 acres of bottomland hardwood habitat enrolled in 30-year or perpetual easements by 2016, the overwhelming majority remains in the hands of private citizens. Of these, 253,000 acres have been fully restored to functional wetlands and bottomland hardwood plantings.

“The Louisiana black bear is the primary benefactor of the habitat restoration,” Norton says. “It has always been a driver in the ranking and selection of applications to ensure we continue to move forward to restoring habitat and habitat connectivity.”

While Norton can roll off numbers with ease, what really gets him excited is the “multi-agency” partnership that ensured the success of the USDA program, and thus the recovery of the Louisiana black bear. He praises the state and federal agencies, non-governmental agencies, and more than 958 private landowners involved.

Clearly, the willingness of private landowners to offer their lands for the restoration of wetlands and related habitat was critical. They still own the land, pay taxes, and are allowed some recreation related benefits, but the key is the habitats are protected in perpetuity.

Norton has been working with various partners on Louisiana black bear issues since arriving in Louisiana in 2007.

“I’ve never had the opportunity to see a Louisiana black bear in the wild,” he explains. “There’s no photo of me with a black bear, but now, one day in the future, I might get that chance.”

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. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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