ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — A new study of the animals that inspired teddy bears finds that Louisiana black bears are likely to survive another century as long as conditions remain stable.
The report released yesterday by the U.S. Geological Survey could lead to the bears’ removal from the list of threatened animals, said Maria Davidson, head of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ large predator program.
“We’re super excited,” she said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to take Louisiana black bears off of the threatened list. If it does, it would be the third of Louisiana’s signature animals to recover; alligators and brown pelicans both used to be listed as endangered in Louisiana.
Such a decision would also let Louisiana set a hunting season, as it did with alligators.
The new study, by adjunct associate professor Joseph Clark of the University of Tennessee, and Jared Laufenberg, who did doctoral research in Louisiana under Clark, found that 450 to 600 bears probably live in three areas. More than half are in the northeast, in the Tensas River Basin.
The total is up from an estimated 80 to 120 bears in the 1950s.
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 cub that had been tied to a tree in Mississippi to provide a trophy for his hunt.
Clark and a number of his students used barbed wire to snag hair from live bears around the state from 2002 through 2012, studying the DNA to learn, among other things, whether bears were moving between groups — essential to avoid inbreeding.
Roughly one-third of today’s bears are in the lower Atchafalaya River Basin in south Louisiana, with 10 to 15 percent in an area northwest of Baton Rouge called the Upper Atchafalaya River Basin, according to the study. About 130 bears from Minnesota were released in that third area in the 1960s, while 31 were released in the Tensas River Basin.
In the 2000s, 48 females and their 104 cubs were moved from Tensas into central Louisiana, to help bridge the gap between the upper Atachafalaya basin and the small group northwest of Baton Rouge.
That seems to be working, Clark said: Cubs with a mixture of genes from Tensas and more southern populations “have moved northward up to the Tensas River Basin, bringing their Upper Atchafalaya genes with them.”
The study also found that a few bears had moved from a small Arkansas population into Mississippi and Louisiana, a few from Tensas had moved into Mississippi, and a few bears born in Mississippi appeared to be “half Arkansas and half Tensas.”
Paul Davidson, executive director of the Black Bear Conservation Coalition, said, “I might question some of the assumptions, but overall, it represents a very good study.”
He said he thinks the state and federal agencies will have a hard time proving that corridors between the groups have been established, “and, even more important, that habitat and alleged corridors are permanently protected.”
He also said he thinks that could mean a court fight over reclassifying the bears, “wasting monies on lawyers instead of investing resources in educating the public and landowners on how to coexist with bears and providing financial incentives to private landowners to restore wildlife habitat.”
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