If you wore a thick, black coat all summer in southern Louisiana, don’t you think you would be hot? Louisiana black bears do just that. But they actually thrive in this climate! In the summer they shed their thick winter undercoat and will pant to release heat, much like dogs. Their summer coats are thinner and longer, allowing cool air to flow through while also keeping direct sunlight off their bodies. Because of this, they are able to roam swamps, berry patches, and marshes during the peak of summer. They are also excellent swimmers and can cool off in the many rivers and waterways of Louisiana.
Louisiana black bears are the state mammal of Louisiana. They are a unique subspecies of the American black bear; they have larger molar teeth and a narrower face and they only range from east Texas to west Mississippi, with most of them roaming the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. Like humans, Louisiana black bears are omnivorous. Also like humans, they enjoy foods with high protein and fat. But unlike many humans, their diets consist mostly of berries, insects, and nuts because that is often what is easily available to them. They are opportunistic carnivores, and will eat meat when they can find it.
Up until just recently, Louisiana’s state mammal was close to extinction. In the 1950s their population was estimated to be between 80 and 120 bears (Nowak 1986) statewide.
How could a big, strong, omnivorous mammal struggle to exist?
The answer is habitat loss. Although these bears can live in uplands and lowland marshes, they actually flourish in floodplains because floodplain forests provide all of their living requirements. For instance, they prefer to use the cavities of large trees, such as bald cypress or water tupelo, for shelter and protection of new cubs. Additionally, floodplain forests produce important sources of food, including seeds, berries, acorns, insects, and prey. These forests also provide escape cover.
Why did Louisiana black bears lose their floodplain forest habitat? Floodplain forests grow on fertile soils that have developed from centuries of repeated flood events. Humans discovered these soils were excellent for growing crops, and over the past century, 80% of the Mississippi River floodplain forests have been lost, with most converted to agriculture. There used to be over 24 million acres of habitat for Louisiana black bears to roam and prosper. Today, we have about 4-5 million acres remaining in scattered tracts of land.
So… are Louisiana black bears still on the verge of extinction?
The good news is they are not! Thanks to efforts between state and federal agencies, the Louisiana black bear was listed as “threatened” in 1992 under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (Neal 1992; LDWF 2018). Since that time, thousands of acres of floodplain forest habitat have been restored. Bear populations have been studied, estimated, and monitored. For instance, at the Tensas National Wildlife Refuge, researchers obtained hair samples from bears using barbed-wire hair traps. They obtained 1,939 hair samples and using genetic and statistical analyses, estimated this population of bears to be about 32 individuals in 1999 (Boersen et al. 2003). About 10 years later the estimated bear population was about 300 bears in this same region (Hooker 2010, LDWF 2018). Although bear populations fluctuate, and the 1999 estimate was considered low, population estimates such as these suggested that the Louisiana black bear was recovering. One of the main reasons for this recovery was the protection and creation of floodplain forest habitat through incentive-based private land restoration programs, such as the Wetland Reserve Program (USFWS 2018), in which land owners receive payments to voluntarily restore wetlands on their property.
In 2016 the Louisiana black bear was officially removed from the List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife under the Endangered Species Act. Today there are estimated to be over 500 bears in Louisiana, supported by three core populations (LDWF 2018).
If not for the protection of the Endangered Species Act, it is very possible the Louisiana black bear would be extinct today, or close to it.
Many iconic species such as the gray wolf, bald eagle, American alligator grizzly bear, and the Peregrine falcon have all continued to exist due to the protections of the Act. Currently, a new proposal has been put forth by the Department of Interior to modify the Endangered Species Act and loosen its restrictions. The main argument for the proposal is that the Act restricts economic development. This is true. But it is because the Endangered Species Act has helped balance economic development with species coexistence, making sure the former does not extinguish the latter. In a time when most species are confined to scattered habitat fragments, the Endangered Species Act has been the last fail-safe between them and extinction. It was for the Louisiana black bear.
Boersen, M.R., J.D. Clark, and T.L. King. “Estimating Black Bear Population Density and Genetic Diversity at Tensas River, Louisiana Using Microsatellite DNA Markers.” Wildlife Society Bulletin (1973-2006) 31, no. 1 (2003): 197-207. https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/70025986
Hooker, M.J.2010. Estimating population parameters of the Louisiana black bear in the Tensas River Basin, Louisiana, using robust design capture-mark-recapture. Master’s Thesis, University of Tennessee, Knoxville. http://www.wlf.louisiana.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/page/36283-tensas-subpopulation/michaelhookermsthesis.pdf
Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF). 2018. Louisiana black bear history. Accessed 8/5/2018 from http://www.wlf.louisiana.gov
Nowak, R. M. 1986. Status of the Louisiana black bear. Office of Endangered Species, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, D.C., USA
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Department of the Interior. 2018. Louisiana black bear. Accessed 8/5/2018 from https://www.fws.gov/southeast/wildlife/mammals/louisiana-black-bear/#efforts-contributing-to-conservation-section