The Louisiana black bear is no longer an endangered species. Does that mean hunters could soon get a shot at the prized animal?
State Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Charlie Melancon said any discussion of a bear hunt in Louisiana is very premature.
“The effort was to save the species,” Melancon said, speaking from the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge where federal and state officials gathered Thursday to make the official announcement — long in the making — that the bear will be taken off the federal Endangered Species Act list.
Melancon’s predecessor, Robert Barham, had floated the idea, making public statements that he was working toward eventually getting a black bear hunting season going. In other interviews, though, he emphasized that his focus was a stabilized population that could lead to delisting.
Some in the conservation community, already not certain the bear was ready to be removed from the endangered list, have been critical of any talk of a hunt until the bear is better recovered.
Delisting doesn’t mean all work on the species stops, since federal and state agencies are required to monitor the Louisiana black bear for a number of years to make sure the population remains stable without the additional federal protection. The federal law requires at least five years of monitoring, but the state and federal agencies have agreed that seven years would be more appropriate in this case.
At some point, the Louisiana black bear will be revitalized to the point that discussions about a possible hunt make sense, but for right now the focus is on continuing the bear’s recovery, Melancon said.
“This is about the preservation of a species,” he said. That preservation doesn’t mean just for the better use of people but for the enjoyment of future generations, he said, adding, “we’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Listed in 1992 as threatened, the Louisiana black bear has made a comeback from about 80 to 120 bears in 1959 to estimates today that range from 500 to 750. Louisiana hasn’t held a black bear hunt since 1988.
Asked how many bears it would take to justify a hunt, Melancon said it’s too soon to know.
“I don’t know what that number is,” Melancon said. That figure will be determined the next generation of wildlife biologists who will monitor and better analyze what can be done, he said.
In the meantime, Melancon said he plans on being in office for at least the next four years and doesn’t expect to participate in any active discussions of starting a Louisiana bear hunt in that time.
The delisting announcement — initially floated as a proposal last spring and revealed last week — was made official by U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. She was joined by a host of state, federal and nonprofit partners who have worked for years to improve habitat for the bears.
“It just shows when we all work together what we can accomplish,” Jewell said. “It doesn’t happen by accident. It’s through a lot of hard work.”
Restoring habitat corridors for the bears took cooperation from disparate groups: private landowners, the timber industry and government officials from a variety of agencies. These habitat corridors allow bears to travel through farms or other developments so they can get to larger tracts of land provided by wildlife refuges, state and national forests.
However, a number of critics believe the delisting happened too soon and isn’t supported by science.
“We really think this is premature. Probably 20 years premature,” said Haywood Martin, chairman of the Delta Chapter of the Sierra Club. Just looking at the number of bears and that the range they now inhabit — so much smaller than the historical range — it doesn’t seem like a recovery justifying removal from the list, he said.
In a story last week Paul Davidson, executive director of the Black Bear Conservation Coalition, said he disagreed that the bear recovery plan from 1995 has been completed.
However, state and federal officials said the work done in Louisiana will be continuing for the foreseeable future and if problems in the bear population arise, action will be taken.
Ann Mills, deputy undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has helped with restoration of nonproductive farmland into bear habitat, said the work done in Louisiana can serve as a model for other states showing that, “we can knit together those wildlife habitat corridors and still have strong rural economies.”
The Louisiana black bear joins other Endangered Species Act success stories in the state, including the American alligator, brown pelican and bald eagle.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.