Process to remove Louisiana black bear from Endangered Species List takes another step Thursday _lowres

A Louisiana black bear, a protected sub-species of the black bear, is seen from its perch in a water oak tree in Marksville, La., Sunday, May 17, 2015. The young bear’s search for a new home has brought him into a central Louisiana neighborhood where he’s spent the past week up one tree or another. The bear is among three to five that have wandered into populated parts of Louisiana in the past 10 days, said wildlife biologist Maria Davidson, head of the large carnivore program for the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Louisiana hunters may someday have a new legal quarry to pursue — bears.

The state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has begun a process that could eventually lead to the distribution of hunting tags for black bears, which were removed from the endangered species list two years ago.

A polling firm presented the results of a statewide survey on bear management during Thursday's meeting of the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission.

The department wanted to test the waters and see if the public would support a bear hunting season, explained Maria Davidson, the state's large carnivore program manager.

By and large, Louisianans love their bears. Seventy-nine percent of the 1,222 respondents said they support having the animals in the state, and only 12 percent said they wanted to see the ursine population reduced, said Mark Duda, executive director of the firm Responsive Management.

When pollsters asked participants if they would back an ethical, state-regulated hunting season that would not threaten the overall population, 69 percent of respondents said they would, Duda continued.

The group surveyed was split into even thirds, representing various parts of the state. The first third includes residents of parishes on or near the Mississippi River in North Louisiana and around the Atchafalaya Basin in South Louisiana where bears already live. The second group comes from places like New Orleans and Lake Charles where bears don't live. The final third — which includes East Baton Rouge Parish — is the region just outside of bears' current range where the species could "re-colonize" as the population rebounds, Davidson explained.

The black bear populations of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi were removed from the endangered species list in 2016. Wildlife and Fisheries estimates that there are approximately 750 black bears in Louisiana.

The number of bears has remained stable in areas where they've been able to hang on. If the population grows, scientists expect it will be because the animals reclaim territory where they had died out, Davidson said.

It's unclear how a hunting season would be regulated. The state hasn't determined who would be eligible for a bear license or how many animals would be harvested per year. Davidson said she isn't looking at issuing tags for dozens and dozens of bears, since carving out too much of the population just leads to more problems.

It's possible that even if a season is instituted, some areas won't allow taking any bears some years. But those are all considerations further down the road. At present, Wildlife and Fisheries hasn't decided whether bear hunting is appropriate. And even if they do, the department will have to collaborate with the Louisiana Legislature.

"It's just the beginning of the conversation. It's not a predetermined decision," Davidson cautioned.

Commissioners indicated the state may need to do some more outreach first. Chad Courville observed that only 56 percent of poll respondents were confident that bears even live in Louisiana and said the state may need to consider some public education on the issue.

Poll participants were very supportive of non-lethal methods of removing bears that come into contact with people; relocation, fencing, bear-proof storage, pepper spray and rubber ammunition all received between 73 and 83 percent support. However, only 19 and 15 percent supported euthanasia and hiring sharpshooters, respectively.

Commissioner Joe McPherson said he'd like to see how an ethical hunting program stacks up against those other options.

Louisiana collaborates with other southern states to disseminate information on dealing with nuisance bears through bearwise.org.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.