A sparse but well-informed crowd gathered in Baton Rouge on Thursday night to give their comments about a proposal to remove the Louisiana black bear from the Endangered Species List.
About 20 people attended the public hearing at the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries offices. Most of them have a long history of involvement with the Louisiana black bear’s recovery.
Some people had already given their comments at the previous public hearing in Tallulah on Tuesday; others worked for wildlife agencies or nonprofits.
So, only four people came to the microphone Thursday night.
Dean Wilson, with the Atchafalaya Basinkeepers, questioned if there is enough information about populations of the bears to move forward with delisting. He also said there were cutbacks in federal and state agencies that make enforcement of bear killing difficult.
Raymond Birdsall Jr. spoke for 10 seconds to report that the cameras on his property in Madison Parish have recorded numerous black bears.
Charles Fryling, of Baton Rouge, spoke about the Coffeen Nature Preserve in Florida, which hasn’t seen a black bear in three years.
“I think there is habitat in Louisiana that is important for bears,” Fryling said.
Buck Vandersteen, executive director of the Louisiana Forestry Association, wanted more information in the post-delisting plan about habitat management expectations and process.
The public hearing was the next step in a process to remove the bear from the list after state and federal officials announced the proposal on May 20. Listed since 1992 as threatened, the Louisiana black bear has made a comeback from an estimated 80 to 120 bears in 1959 to estimates today that range from 500 to 750.
The recovery hasn’t happened by accident. State, federal, nonprofit and landowner partners have worked for years to increase the amount of habitat available for the bears. The reduction of habitat was one of the main reasons for the bear’s population decline.
There was a restocking program from 1964 through 1967 that involved relocating 161 bears from Cook County, Minnesota, to Louisiana. Genetic studies show these bears don’t pose a threat to the Louisiana bear, said Deborah Fuller, with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Lafayette office.
In addition, between 2001 and 2009, the state relocated 47 mother bears and their 104 cubs from winter dens in the Tensas River basin to areas at the Lake Ophelia National Wildlife Refuge and the Red River and Three Rivers wildlife management areas.
All of it has been an effort to help the bear join the recovery success stories of the brown pelican, American alligator and bald eagle.
“This state has just been outstanding to work towards on-the-ground conservation,” said Jeffrey Weller, field supervisor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Lafayette.
After the bear was placed on the Endangered Species List in 1992, a recovery plan was developed that outlined what it would mean for the bear to be considered “recovered” and taken off the list.
According to that plan, there needs to at least be a viable population of Louisiana black bear in the Tensas and the Atchafalaya river basins. In addition, there need to be habitat routes that allow the bears to move between these two population areas and long-term protection in place for those traveling corridors.
A viable population is defined as having enough bears in an area for a 95 percent chance or better that the population will survive for the next 100 years.
Studies indicate that those criteria are being met, and that prompted the delisting process, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
If the bear is taken off the list, the act requires that state and federal agencies monitor the bear’s progress for at least five years. The draft monitoring plan goes beyond that and would require seven years of monitoring. The bear will retain protected under state law.
Comments can also be mailed to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters, Attn: FWS-R4-ES-2015-0014, MS BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041-3803.
It’s hard to say how long it will take for a decision to be made, Weller said. That will depend on how many comments are received, if any additional science needs to be done, or other factors.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.