Habitat loss, poaching and road kills pushed the once-numerous Louisiana black bear so close to the edge of extinction that in 1992 it was designated as an endangered species.
But a little more than two decades later, the species has recovered to the point that state officials and conservation groups are discussing whether it still needs that level of protection — and even whether bear hunts could again resume in the Sportsman’s Paradise.
At a recent presentation on new research about the bear’s recovery, one man asked if there were any plans for a bear hunting season before the animal is removed from the threatened list.
“It’s a big game animal,” he said. “I think it’s overdue.”
Although the Louisiana black bear has undergone a remarkable recovery since the population dropped in the 1950s to an estimated 80 to 120 bears, concentrated primarily in the Tensas River and Atchafalaya River basins, some are cautioning against moving too quickly to delist it as an endangered species or open a bear hunting season.
Paul Davidson, executive director of the Black Bear Conservation Committee, said the committee isn’t opposed to an eventual hunt, but only after there are viable populations of the bear within its historic range from Texas to Mississippi.
“My concern is there’s been a real push to delist before we have our ducks in a row,” he said.
A major force behind that push, according to Davidson, has been state Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham.
“Robert Barham would like to have his bear hunt before he leaves office,” Davidson said.
Barham has made several public statements supporting a bear hunt.
“I’m working hard to get tags to get a hunting season for black bears,” he told a group in Farmerville in 2011 in a talk covered by The Gazette, a local newspaper. He echoed those statements a few months ago to a Shreveport television station.
In an interview last week, Barham shrugged off suggestions he’s been pushing for delisting to get a bear season. He said hunting is a management tool that would eventually be used for the bear. The real goal, he insisted, is to get the population stable enough to remove the bear from the federal Endangered Species List.
“The goal is not to delist for a purpose,” he said. “I think we have an analysis that we have a very healthy population that has long-term viability.”
Others say that far from detracting from species restoration efforts, well-managed hunting can help recovery efforts.
“The interest is much broader than just pulling the trigger,” said John Jackson, chairman and president of Conservation Force and a member of the Louisiana chapter of Safari Club International.
Sportsmen groups spend billions of dollars every year on conservation measures that help with habitat and species recovery for many animals, he said. One such group is Ducks Unlimited, which is well known for the fundraising and other work it has done to enhance duck populations. Black bears in other areas of the country have benefited in similar ways, Jackson said.
“They’ve been brought back through sportsman conservation,” he said.
Louisiana black bear hunting has a long history. A scarcity of bears in the 1950s diminished hunter interest, so the Wildlife Commission closed bear hunting from 1956 until 1961. Limited seasons were reinstated for several years at a time in the following three decades, with the last ending in 1988, mainly because hunts had become uncommon “due to low bear numbers,” according to a history of the black bear from the state Wildlife and Fisheries Department.
Several wildlife conservation groups in the state — including the Louisiana Wildlife Federation, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the National Wildlife Federation — haven’t taken a position on the prospect of a future bear season, other than expressing a desire that recovery efforts continue.
Last week, researchers hired to gauge the health of the bear population released encouraging findings.
Joseph Clark, an ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey at the University of Tennessee, said the best estimate now for the Tensas River Basin and Atchafalaya River Basin is between 516 and 566 bears. And that doesn’t count areas in the rest of the state that the bear may call home.
Categorizing the bear as threatened in 1992 prompted the creation of a recovery plan that outlined three criteria that had to be met before the animal could be taken off the list: sustainable populations in the Tensas River and Atchafalaya River basins, habitat connections between those two populations and protection for corridor habitats.
Clark and fellow researcher Jared Laufenberg, a research associate at University of Tennessee, said their research shows the bears are doing much better.
To determine the size and overall movement of populations, researchers collected information by capturing bears, tracking them with radio collars, checking winter dens and taking DNA samples. The data were fed into a computer to try to forecast the likelihood that the Louisiana black bear population will still exist in 100 years.
The results: a 99.9 percent chance the bear will be around somewhere in the Tensas River Basin, the upper Atchafalaya River Basin and the Three Rivers Basin, which is near Vidalia.
“It’s like a forecasting problem, like forecasting the weather,” Laufenberg said.
Another good sign is that genetic testing suggests there is at least some movement of bears between basins.
“This implies movement corridors exist,” Clark said. “What is clear is that Louisiana black bears are in much better condition than 22 years ago when they were listed.”
Debbie Fuller, coordinator of Louisiana black bear recovery activities with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency will review the information but has no timeline to make a decision on whether the bear can be removed from the threatened status.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.