Louisiana Black Bear Recovery Plan

The Louisiana black bear (Ursus americanus luteolus) (LBB) is a Federally Threatened subspecies under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) found in three states; Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, with additional evidence that they were also in Arkansas. Louisiana is the primary state responsible for the recovery of the Louisiana black bear (pdf file – Louisiana Black Bear Recovery Plan).

There have been some well publicized successes in the last few years, where Threatened and Endangered (T&E) Species have recovered to the point they no longer require endangered species protection. The Bald Eagle was removed from protection in 2007, followed by the Peregrine Falcon in 2008. Now, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes the Grizzly Bear and the Gray Wolf should be removed from special ESA protection, but the proposals are currently being held up in the courts by conservation groups that want the ESA protections for bears, wolves and their habitats to continue.

So, how about the only Federally listed subspecies of black bear, the Louisiana black bear? How are they doing 21 years after being listed and 18 years after the Louisiana Black Bear Recovery Plan was approved?

Current Louisiana Black Bear Populations

Louisiana black bear with cubs

Louisiana black bear with cubs Photo Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

With only about 20% of the native bottomland hardwood forest remaining by 1980 and with unregulated bear hunting until the 1920s, no surprise the bears were nearly extirpated.  But small groups of bears persisted. The economic factors that led to the conversion of bottomland forest to agriculture has slowed and many landowners are finding more value in the land as hardwood forests than as cropland. Good news for all forest wildlife, including bears. If they will be saved, it will be because people find value in forest and bears.

There is little recent population data available, partly because current studies are expected to provide new population estimates in 2013. These new studies are based on DNA analysis, which may also help define more clearly which populations should be identified as the threatened Louisiana sub-species and which populations may belong to other non-threatened sub-species.

In 1995, the Louisiana black bear Recovery Plan (LBBRP) identified two population centers with estimates of 60 – 100 bears in an area around the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge area and 30 – 60 bears in the Atchafalaya Basin. Any bear in West Mississippi or East Texas also receives protected status simply because that are in areas assumed to be U. a. luteolus. There may be as many as 50 Louisiana black bears in Mississippi, but only a few bear sightings in Texas.

Louisiana Black Bear Recovery in Louisiana

If there is real justification for the U. a. luteolus supbspecies, Louisiana is the last stronghold, with Louisiana black bear populations in three main areas:

  • Northeastern Louisiana in the vicinity of Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge – population now estimated at 300
  • Northeastern Atchafalaya Basin ( Pointe Coupee Parish) – population now estimated at 56
  • Southern Atchafalaya River Basin (primarily St. Mary Parish) – population now estimated at 100

Population data quoted from Maria Davidson, large carnivore program manager with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in Houma Today (April 2013).  I assume these estimates were based on the 2008 data from the first scientific population estimate based on DNA from hair samples.

The ultimate goal for all T&E species is the recovery and the long term survival of the species.  To that end, the LBBRP has three requirements for de-listing (removal from the Threatened List) of the Louisiana black bear:

  1. At least two viable sub-populations (viable means a 95% chance of persistence over 100 years) – the sub populations are the Tensas and Atchafalaya River Basins
  2. Immigration and emigration corridors between the two viable sub-populations – to maintain genetic diversity in each sub-populations
  3. Long-term protection of the habitat and the interconnecting corridors – long-term meaning that habitat degradation is unlikely for the next 100 years

Protecting habitat and providing corridors for genetic diversity sounds logical, but how is population viability defined or measured?

The USFWS says population viability analyses (PVA) are ongoing, and then in the Federal Register, they say that PVA was used on a subgroup to create a model to evaluate minimum habitat requirements: “…that subgroup is viable, based on the results of population viability analyses, that subgroup was used as a model to evaluate the minimum habitat requirements for maintenance of long-term population viability”.

Hmmm. Smarter people than me are working on this, but the Louisiana black bear is considered threatened because there is concern about the viability of the population. But then, USFWS claims a sub-group is viable based upon PVA and then uses that data as a model. No data or reference was provided for the PVA. Must be one of them government programs.

Once an estimate of the population, net population growth (or loss) rate and the amount of variation in the process, PVA is a simple mathematical model . Evaluating PVA in the political world of the ESA is another matter completely.

So, What is the plan to fulfill the three requirements for de-listing?

The Plan For Recovery; Actions Needed

  • Restore and protect bear habitat
  • Develop and implement information and education program
  • Protect and manage bear populations
  • Conduct research on population viability and bear biology

Sounds simple and straight forward enough. So what’s actually been done, keeping in mind the recovery date is listed as 2025.

What has Actually Been Accomplished for Louisiana Black Bear Recovery?

In March 2009, the USFWS designated 1,195,821 acres of critical habitat (Bottomland and other hardwood forests) in Louisiana. But this only effects federal lands and activities on private lands that require federal permits. Timber harvest is not effected…”because the Service determined normal silviculture activities to be compatible with the bear’s habitat needs and exempted those activities from “take” under the ESA when the bear was listed”. Agricultural lands are also not effected, because those habitats ares no longer considered critical.

Formation of Black Bear Conservation Committee (BBCC), BEaR group of Mississippi (BEaR) and the East Texas Black Bear Task Force (no website, but they are on Facebook.

Identified key recovery blocks (Tensas and Atchafalaya River Basins) and key corridors between the recovery blocks.

Landowner protection of bear habitat:

  • Restoration of over 365,000 acres of wildlife habitat on private land in Louisiana
  • A USFWS Private Stewardship Grant of $85,200 was used to assist 10 private landowners in planting bottomland hardwood species on 860 acres of marginal cropland
  • 130,000 acres have been protected and/or restored via the NRCS Wetland Reserve Program (WRP)
  • 138,000 acres of private land enrolled in permanent easements
  • In Mississippi – 500 acres have been restored
  • In East Texas, 1,550 acres have been enhanced

There are also many Landowner Assistance Programs they help land owners to improve or restore bear habitat

  • BBCC Landowner Assistance Program
  • Federal Assistance Programs
    • USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) Programs
      • Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP)
      • Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)
      • Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP)
      • Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP)
    • USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) Programs
      • Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)
      • State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE)
  • State Assistance Programs
    • Mississippi State Programs
      • Forest Stewardship Program
    • Texas State Programs
      • Texas Heritage Forest Program Texas
      • Forest Legacy Program
      • Forest Stewardship Program
      • Forest Land Enhancement Program (FLEP)
      • TPWD East Texas Wetlands Project
      • Landowner Incentive Program (LIP)

Enhanced and restored bear habitat – Refer to the BBCC Black Bear Management Handbook (though completed in 1997 and updated in 2005, and “currently on its 3rd edition with 16,000 copies distributed between 1992 and 2003, I can not find a reference to or a single copy of the handbook listed anywhere. I have emailed BBCC to see where I can get a copy).

Develop, implement and evaluate habitat restoration plan – USFWS classifies this as “Ongoing Current”, but I can not find any reference to a habitat restoration plan. Yet, there are claims about the restoration of 365,000 acres of wildlife habitat on private land in Louisiana. Obviously, restoration does not mean all these acres were restored to the previous bottomland hardwood forest condition, but it means some sort of process (planting, fencing, posting, mowing, logging, spraying) was started. But what plan was being used to make sure these habitat “restorations” will benefit bears? I hope this not playing fast and loose with our tax money.

Disseminate bear status, recovery and management information – USFWS classifies this as “Ongoing Current”, and is currently focused in the three states that are most concerned with Louisiana black bear recovery. Information is not easy to find, so the responsible parties do not update websites with new information very often.

Reduce illegal killing through education – USFWS classifies this as “Ongoing Current”. Good Luck with this one. Perhaps when road signs are no longer filled with bullet holes, can we hope to reduce illegal killings.

Reduce human/bear conflict through education – USFWS classifies this as “Ongoing Current”. Good Luck with this one too. Perhaps they intend this to mean that nuisance bears should be educated.

Enforce legal protection of bears – USFWS classifies this as “Ongoing Current”. Enforcement of wildlife laws will always be necessary.

Develop and implement road management guidelines – USFWS classifies this as “Ongoing Current”. Good idea. Everywhere there are roads, wildlife are killed by vehicles. The cumulative effect of vehicle collisions is larger than most people think. I have seen data for western states that indicate cars may kill more deer than hunters. Signage may warn people about the possibility of animals on or crossing the road, but no law or signs can make people pay attention. Reducing speeds may be a good strategy.

The next group of “Actions” are all related to current research projects

  • Develop population monitoring techniques or indices
  • Conduct population viability analysis
  • Define viable sub-population goal – Yes, how can Recovery Goals be written or defined without this data.
  • Evaluate population indices and goals
  • Develop corridor guidelines – based on findings of telemetry studies and DNA data from hair samples
  • Study bear biology and limiting factors

Louisiana Black Bears Repatriation

Repatriation is a fancy word meaning re-introduction. Bears are being moved from areas with seemingly good populations and moved into areas where it is hoped they can survive.  One such area is the The Three rivers complex (105,000 acres) of public land in on National Wildlife Refuges, Wildlife Management Areas and 50,000 acres of private woodlands. Since 2001, a total of 96 bears (30 adult females and 69 cubs) have been relocated.

New Findings From DNA Studies

Some of the first data are becoming available from the DNA hair sample studies.  DNA collected from hair samples can be used to identify individual bears and their relatedness to other bears. The DNA could also be used to assign populations of bears to one subspecies or another or it may conclude there are no valid reasons for some of the subspecies designations. One fact that confounds the DNA study is the fact that several hundred bears were imported from Minnesota and release Arkansas and Louisiana in 1950s and 1960s.

Luckily, Miller et al. 1998 Ursus 10:335-341) concluded the genetic impacts of the imported northern bears was insignificant “…any genetic impacts that may have been caused by the translocations were not statistically significant.

J. Warrillow et al. Journal of Heredity Volume 92, Issue 3 Pp. 226-233)

  • Concluded  bears from White River NWR in Arkansas should be included as U. a. luteolus
  • Suggested that the Alabama/Mississippi population may be genetically distinct from other southern populations
  • However, other work (Miller 1995) suggested that there should be no distinction between U. a. floridanus and U. a. luteolus

Csiki et al. 2003. Journal of Mammalogy, 84(2):691–701

  • Concluded the Ozark & Ouachita (Arkansas) and Northern Louisiana populations are most likely derived from the Minnesota population
  • Does not support the current USFWS policy of protecting all black bears of Louisiana as U. a. luteolus.
  • Concluded  the White River Arkansas and Coastal Louisiana bear populations appear unaltered by the translocation projects
  • But concluded that neither the White River bears nor Coastal Louisiana bears may not be sufficiently different to be considered different subspecies

Obviously, all studies concluded that more DNA research was needed since DNA work with bears is very new. But several serious questions are raised.

  • Is there real DNA justification for a separate subspecies (U. a. luteolus)? If not, there is no justification for their Threatened Status
  • Should the White River NWR population be included as U. a. luteolus? If so, they are currently removed from ESA protection, so the entire process would have to be reviewed. Also, if the White River population is included, would the addition of those bears satisfy the Recovery Plan Objectives? If so, there would be no need for protected status of  U. a. luteolus.

The ultimate goal of the ESA is to prevent the loss of any species. Everyone concerned should want to see the survival of bears in Louisiana, Mississippi and East Texas, reguadless if they belong to a unique subspecies or not. For those that don’t care to see bears, all effort at improving habitat for bears, will also improve habitat for all other species that use bottomland hardwood forests.

Comments, Opinions, Questions?