Louisiana black bear population growing slowly
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New studies suggest Louisiana black bear population has gradually grown to 500, but whether the subspecies that inspired teddy bears can survive without federal protection remains in question.
"The bear is on the way to recovery. We probably have a long ways to go," said Harold Schoeffler of Lafayette, whose lawsuits against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service got the bears listed as threatened in 1992 and pushed the government into designating critical habitat for the species in 2005.
He hadn't seen the two new studies being presented at public meetings Monday in Pointe Coupee Parish and Tuesday in Morgan City, but said he'll attend Tuesday's meeting.
Graduate students Jesse Troxler and Kaitlin O'Connell at the University of Tennessee estimated the numbers in two parts of the Atchafalaya Basin through DNA analysis of hair snagged in barbed wire. Their adviser, Joe Clark, said Monday they counted bears in the coastal area and the upper Atchafalaya.
Altogether there are about 200 in both groups, with the coastal group roughly double the size of the northern group, he said.
"A lot of this stuff is just preliminary," Clark said in a telephone interview Monday. "We're going to do an overall analysis to evaluate what the viability of the entire bear population in the state is. That won't be finished until later this year."
An earlier study estimated the largest population, in and around the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge in north Louisiana, at about 300 as of 2008. The statewide total was estimated at fewer than 300 when the bears were listed as threatened.
Another 49 female bears and their 100 or so cubs were moved from Tensas to a wildlife management area about 50 miles north of Pointe Coupee Parish in the mid-2000s. That group hasn't been counted, Clark said.
Louisiana black bears are among 16 subspecies of American black bears, the smallest bears found in the United States. The first teddy bears were created after President Teddy Roosevelt refused in 1902 to shoot a bear that had been tied to a tree in Mississippi to provide a trophy for his hunt.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has said that "delisting" the bears will require at least two groups — one in the Tensas area and the other in the Atchafalaya River Basin — that can survive without protection. In addition, protected, forested "corridors" must be created to let them move between those groups.
O'Connell has found that bears are moving "pretty well" between the upper Atchafalaya and the Three Rivers Wildlife Management Area, Clark said.
That's encouraging, Schoeffler said, noting that the bears also have trundled into east Texas and swum the Mississippi River into west Mississippi. They're also found in Arkansas.
However, Clark said, "There's very little movement so far that we can detect between the Tensas and upper Atchafalaya populations, or the upper Atchafalaya and lower Atchafalaya population."
Distance is the problem with bears getting to and from the Tensas group — it's about 130 miles from the upper Atchafalaya group and about 80 miles from Three Rivers. Highways stymie movement between the two Atchafalaya Basin groups.
Clark said the researchers and state scientists will also present information about habitat requirements for bears' living space and travel corridors and a study about how bears reacted when the Atchafalaya basin was flooded by opening the Morganza Spillway during the record Mississippi River floods of 2011.
Apparently, only about 8 percent of the bears left the spillway during the floods, Clark said. "We had some animals radio-collared," he said. "They sort of hung out in trees and on high banks, railroad berms — that kind of thing — till the water went down."
JANET McCONNAUGHEY,Associated Press
Sierra Club Acadiana Group: http://acadiansierra.blogspot.com/p/contact-us.html
Black Bear Conservation Coalition: http://www.bbcc.org/