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A black bear in a field locks eyes with the camera as it eats grassy vegetation.
Information icon Louisiana black bear. Photo by Pam Mcilhenny, used with permission.

Louisiana black bear’s survival depends on people, says biologist

Joe Clark holding a bear skull in his office
Joseph Clark shows off the skull of a black bear, an impressively resilient animal that he says can be considered more intelligent than even primates.

Joseph D. Clark is the branch chief of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Southern Appalachian Research Branch, located at the University of Tennessee. He also holds an appointment as an adjunct professor at the university, where he has served as an advisor to six graduate students researching the Louisiana black bear. Clark has authored more than 80 scientific articles on animals that include, in addition to the Louisiana black bear, the Florida panther, elk, muskrat and river otters.

“The things that sets bears apart is their intelligence,” Clarks says. “You think you’ve found a way to trap them, and then they’ve figured it out and soon are avoiding the trap.”

“They can thwart whatever you’re trying to do with them,” he continues. “It’s really a challenge, and interesting, that way. Bears are among the most intelligent animals out there. Bears are near or right at the top of the list, even higher than primates, depending on how you define intelligence.”

Clark also is impressed by the Louisiana black bear’s resiliency.

He tells of a time in 2012 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened a channel to divert water from the Mississippi River. The water that was released flooded an area where Clark and his graduate students were studying Louisiana black bears.

“They inundated the area in 20 feet of water. The question was, what would happen to the bears? Would they stay? Leave? Drown?”

The bears stayed.

“They climbed trees and stayed up there a couple of months, but they survived,” he says. “It was amazing.”

Despite their intelligence and resiliency, Clark says the continued existence of the Louisiana black bear “is all going to boil down to people, as it always does.”

“If bears had to rely on public lands, there’s not enough public lands for them to survive. So it’s going to depend on private lands. People need to know that bears have value, and they’re going to depend on us for habitat if they’re to persist.”

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