Louisiana black bear

Louisiana black bear (Advocate file photo)

A national nonprofit group along with a number of Louisiana organizations and individuals have filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeking to have the Louisiana black bear put back on the list of endangered species.

The bear, a sub-species of the American black bear, was named an endangered species in 1992 but was delisted as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2016.

The federal agency said at the time that the Louisiana black bear species had been restored and that the delisting followed a comprehensive scientific review.

"The Louisiana black bear is another success story for the Endangered Species Act," said then U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in making the announcement two years ago. 

When the black bear, the state mammal of Louisiana, was originally listed as endangered in 1992, there were as few as 150 bears, but when the bear was delisted two year ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated there were 500 to 750 bears. 

For the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed June 28 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking to reverse that delisting, those numbers aren't high enough.

"Their (black bear) numbers have increased just modestly and ongoing threats continue," including the loss of habitat and rising human-caused deaths from car collisions and poaching, said Paula Dinerstein, senior counsel in the lawsuit and attorney for the Washington-based nonprofit PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility). 

There is now no hunting season for the black bear in Louisiana, although there has been in previous decades. The state hasn’t held a black bear hunt since 1988.

However, without the protection offered by the Endangered Species Act, hunting "could be on the horizon," said Misha Mitchell, co-counsel for the plaintiffs and attorney for the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, an environmental conservation organization.

In fact, last month the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries released the results of a poll it commissioned to see if the public would support a bear-hunting season.

The results of the poll were mixed. While 79 percent of respondents supported having the bears in the state, only 12 percent said they wanted to see its population reduced.

However, when participants were asked if they would support a state-regulated hunting season that wouldn't threaten the black bear's overall population, 69 percent of respondents said they would. 

Atchafalaya Basinkeeper and PEER are two of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit seeking to have the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service restore the Louisiana black bear's endangered species status.

Other plaintiffs are Sierra Club and its Delta Chapter, the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association-West and three individuals who initiated the original 1992 listing of the Louisiana black bear as an endangered species, Dr. Ronald Nowak, Dr. Michael Caire, and Harold Schoeffler.

Nowak, a biologist, is a native of Louisiana who now lives in Virginia. He was the staff mammologist at the Office of Endangered Species with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service from 1974 to 1987. Caire, a physician and resident of Louisiana, was active with the Tensas Conservancy Coalition where his work led to the purchase of the Tensas National Wildlife Refuge, a habitat of the black bear. Schoeffler, of Louisiana, has a long history of trying to protect the black bear. In 1987, he drafted a citizens’ petition to have the bear listed as a threatened species.

The lawsuit calls for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief to remedy "violations of the Endangered Species Act" that include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's removal of the Louisiana black bear from the endangered species list as well as the agency's removal of the legal designation "critical habitat" from the bear's habitat.

The removal of the description of the black bear's habitat, found in the Tensas River Basin and the Atchafalaya Basin, means that the terrain is no longer protected from development, Mitchell said.

Brian Hires, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service public affairs specialist for the Endangered Species Act domestic listings and critical habitat, said last week that "we have worked closely with the state to conserve and protect the Louisiana black bear." 

"Only when all of the recovery goals have been met, after a public comments process" can a species be delisted, Hires said. 

Mitchell, with Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, said that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit filed in late June.

Follow Ellyn Couvillion on Twitter, @EllynCouvillion.