The Battle Over Louisiana's Black Bears

A fight is brewing over the country's most endangered bruin.
Avatar:
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
0
A fight is brewing over the country's most endangered bruin.
black bear

The only American black bear subspecies with federal protections may soon lose them. Photo by: Joel Sartore

“Look here, Holt,” Teddy Roosevelt said to his guide. “I’m bound to see a bear the first day.”

The president, like me more than a century later, had high hopes for his maiden foray into the wilds of the Mississippi Delta—except that, being Roosevelt, he wanted to see a bear in order to shoot it. In 1902, this qualified him as a staunch conservationist. His confidence perhaps stemmed from Holt Collier’s résumé: The former slave and Confederate soldier was the region’s most renowned bear hunter, with more than 3,000 kills to his name.

On day one of Roosevelt’s hunt, organized in Mississippi near the Louisiana state line, Collier delivered, using hounds to drive a bear out of thick canebrake and into a stream. After a struggle that left one of his dogs dead and the bear injured, Collier was able to snare the animal and tie it to a tree. Roosevelt was a prolific big game hunter who slew all manner of wild creatures, but evidently even he had his limits. He declined to shoot the defenseless bear.

Roosevelt’s act, in an early 20th century sense, went viral. The Washington Post ran a cartoon of the scene titled “Drawing the Line in Mississippi,” and a candy maker in Brooklyn got the president’s permission to sell stuffed animals named “Teddy’s Bears.” A cultural sensation was born.

black bear

Roosevelt cartoon. Illustration by: Clifford Berryman

But one detail was rarely reported, then or since. The bear Roosevelt spared was not an average American black bear but ursus americanus luteolus, a unique subspecies native to the bottomland hardwood forests of the Lower Mississippi River Valley. Today it’s the state mammal of Louisiana, and known as the Louisiana black bear.

Its distinctions are almost imperceptible to the untrained eye: most notably, a longer, narrower skull and large molar teeth. In the intervening years since Roosevelt’s encounter, hunting and deforestation decimated luteolus. By 1992 there were perhaps 150 left, which earned it a spot on the federal endangered species list. Of the 16 American black bear subspecies, only luteolus is classified as “threatened.” Indeed, across North America, black bear populations appear to be on the rise, estimated at more than 850,000. Bears in general have become so abundant that 32 of the 41 states with native populations have instituted hunting seasons to manage their numbers.

The Louisiana black bear has experienced its own bounce-back in the last quarter-century, though to a much smaller degree. Roughly 500 to 750 now roam from East Texas to Mississippi, and in May 2015 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed to delist them. That’s rare. Less than two percent of the more than 2,000 species listed since the passage of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 have recovered. State agencies in the region and peer reviewers have endorsed the USFWS’s proposal. The proclamation from on high is unambiguously positive: The Teddy Bear is back.

Or is it? Conservation organizations, concerned citizens, and Louisiana black bear experts have cried foul. Many believe that sound science has taken a backseat to political ambition. Could it be a classic case of crooked Louisiana politics?

In order to separate fact from good old-fashioned bayou mythmaking, I needed to get a closer look, on the bear’s home turf. I hoped I could find some answers and—if I was lucky—maybe a bear, too. One of these searches would turn out to be much more difficult than the other.

black bear

Harold Schoeffler filed the 1991 lawsuit that led to federal protection for the Louisiana black bear. Photo by: Jason Cohen

Crunching around the edge of a parched soy field wasn’t what I had in mind when bear advocate Harold Schoeffler agreed to take me on a hiking tour of the best luteolus territory in south-central Louisiana. But bears, it turns out, are fairly undiscerning about habitat when free protein is involved. “I’ve seen ’em run across this field,” Schoeffler says. The bigger issue is the late-July heat, he warns. With temperatures creeping toward 100, the big galoots will be disinclined to budge from wherever they’re hiding.

None know Louisiana’s wilds, or the plight of its bear, better than Schoeffler. The whip-sharp 75-year-old grew up and still lives in Lafayette, the center of hardscrabble Cajun country, where he chairs the regional Sierra Club. His worldview is a pragmatic marriage of conservationism and capitalism. He hunts duck, geese, squirrel, and rabbit and fishes for brook trout. He poached gators as a youth to make a little side cash and, as an adult, traded in Cadillacs until selling his dealership five years ago. More Roosevelt than Muir, he bristles at being lumped in with the tree-hugging types. “The best environmentalists are outdoorsmen,” he says.

Few have had more success advocating for the Louisiana environment: Schoeffler, to put it bluntly, knows how to get what he wants. At age 11 he watched his favorite fishing spot in Vermilion Bay get destroyed by shell dredging and vowed to one day “put those bastards out of business,” which he effectively did in the early ’90s after leading a David-versus-Goliath fight against the offenders that went all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

For the bear, he’s been a tireless advocate. It was his 1991 lawsuit against the USFWS that led to luteolus being listed in the first place, and his again in 2005 that ultimately forced the designation of 1.2 million acres of critical habitat—which mandates an assessment of habitat and limits federal activity on that land. Much of this habitat will lose protection if the bear is delisted. If the Service, which is not expected to make a final decision before early 2016, decides to go forth with delisting, Schoeffler says he’ll consider suing them again. If so, luteolus could follow the paths of the grizzly bear and gray wolf, populations of which were delisted in recent years only to be relisted following lawsuits. “The bear can’t speak for itself,” Schoeffler says.

In 1995, the USFWS established three criteria for considering delisting luteolus: having two viable subpopulations of the bear, a corridor of habitat linking these groups, and assuring the long-term protection of their habitat and the connecting corridor. The USFWS and Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) believe they have met these goals. Not only has the bear population recovered several-fold from its pre-listing nadir, but a combination of public lands and private easements have permanently protected 638,000 acres of habitat, almost triple what existed prior to listing.

These figures, however, are mere fractions of what Ron Nowak, a former USFWS endangered species biologist, estimates was a pre-colonization population of 80,000 across 76.8 million acres—something Schoeffler is quick to point out.

“The media has bought this bullshit feel-good story,” Schoeffler says. “Nobody can read these numbers . . . and say we’ve saved the bear.”

At the edge of the soy field, Schoeffler, wearing a pocketed shirt and well-worn blue jeans, crouches and points at the dirt. There’s a wide impression sunken into the earth, bigger than the meandering hog and deer tracks we’d been following. He nods at a swipe of dried mud across the tall grass at the edge of the woods: “They go into here.” We step out of the sun-beaten field and under the cooling canopy and see an impressive network of wide dirt paths which, to me, look like hiking trails. “Bear trails,” Schoeffler corrects me. They look wide enough for a four-wheeler, and they’re booby-trapped with large webs spun by long-legged banana spiders. But we see no other signs of luteolus. Schoeffler, like any good hunter, uses few words in the woods, so when it’s time to move on to another bear haunt, he just starts walking away, and I follow.

Since the Louisiana black bear was officially listed on January 7, 1992, the responsibility of rehabilitating it has been shared among the USFWS, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and third parties like the state’s Black Bear Conservation Coalition. Schoeffler and other critics of the delisting proposal say that state wildlife agents have bristled at the presence of their federal overseers from the jump and that this uneasy relationship has been one reason the bear delisting has been expedited.

Jeff Weller, the USFWS field supervisor in Louisiana, denies that such a tension exists, and credits the state’s role in previously getting the American alligator, bald eagle, and brown pelican delisted. “I’ve never experienced any kind of stress or pushback from the state. . . Regardless of what our colleagues say, or what current politicians at any level of government may say, we have to base our decision on the science. Not on external pressures.”

It’s hard to argue with such a facts-first approach, but on the ground, Schoeffler and I find things aren’t so black and white. After our soy-field excursion, Schoeffler decides to search in the Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge. He peels off of the asphalt of rural LA 317 where a small sign with a blue goose points down a dirt road. We rumble a ways until we see another sign marking one segment of the refuge. The ground behind it is thick with bamboo and palmettos that look like leftovers from the Jurassic Period. The cover from ancient oaks and new-growth trees blots out the sun. It would be prime bear-stalking territory—if not for the red NO TRESPASSING notice. At the bottom of the Bayou Teche sign, next to where it identifies this refuge as dedicated Louisiana black bear habitat that’s open to the public, there’s a phone number listed. Schoeffler calls it. “Line’s disconnected.”

We continue, traversing much of the bears’ stomping ground in the Lower Atchafalaya River Basin. The habitat here, near the coast, is extremely fragmented by development. Still, this region supports the second-largest of four breeding bear subpopulations in the state despite providing the fewest acres. We see snakes and deer and monstrous “devil’s horse” grasshoppers, hear the croak of gators camouflaged among swampy cypress knees, and come upon scat in a cane field that Schoeffler attributes to a coyote, but we find no bears.

Schoeffler would like to see 3,000 Louisiana black bears from East Texas to Mississippi, rather than the current 500 to 750, before lifting federal protections. His worry is that populations are still fragile enough to be drastically impacted by the whims of state administrations. “Delisting the bear puts it in the hands of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, which works for the governor,” he says. If a given governor is less inclined to, say, prosecute poachers, the bear’s security could go south in a hurry. (It remains to be seen how governor-elect John Bel Edwards will handle the bear issue.)

It’s not hard to see why skeptics suspect politics are at play. The 1995 recovery plan, for example, estimated that USFWS would meet its criteria in 2025; in a country numb to jokes about government inefficiency, here is an agency claiming it has gotten the job done a decade ahead of schedule. And ex-governor Bobby Jindal, evidently eager to attach himself to the delisting before his term ended (and when his run for the presidency still seemed viable), treated it as an inevitability in a press conference last May, before the public or any peer reviewers had been given a chance to vet the proposal.

“Today, after 20 years of collaborative research and recovery efforts,” Jindal said while standing in front of the governor’s mansion, “we are proud to finally announce the recovery of the Louisiana black bear.”

The bear’s fate could carry ramifications for countless other species. Large mammals require more comprehensive conservation efforts, and what benefits them often tangentially helps smaller, more obscure critters.

black bear

In the name of bear recovery, Paul Davidson united groups ranging from big timber to the Sierra Club. Photo by: BBCC

Paul Davidson has a keen understanding of the risks and rewards of delisting. The Louisiana State-educated biologist has dedicated the last 23 years of his life to the recovery effort as the executive director of the Black Bear Conservation Coalition (BBCC), a public-private group formed in the wake of the bear’s listing. With past experience as a crawfish farmer and in leading the Baton Rouge Clean Air Coalition, he’s made a career out of being a mediator for different stakeholders on environmental issues. Davidson actually believes bear populations are healthy enough for delisting. “My issue,” he says, “is habitat.”

In late summer, I join Davidson to explore bear territory circumscribed by the Red, Atchafalaya, and Mississippi Rivers. He’s a thin, affable 66-year-old, with a graying mop of hair and horseshoe mustache. His T-shirt says “Don’t Feed Bears.”

Davidson’s years patrolling bear habitat have made him a walking field guide. During our hike in the sprawling, 70,000-acre Richard K. Yancey Wildlife Management Area—a lush preserve devoid of trails and dotted with ponds and bayous under an umbrella of pecans, oaks, and other hardwoods—he whispers the names of all flora and fauna within view. Little blue herons. Mississippi kite. Red-shouldered hawk. Overcup oak. Nuttall oak. At the edge of an oxbow lake, we push through brambles hoping to get a view of a watering bear.

When you combine public lands like Yancey and Bayou Teche with easements bought on private property, you get a protected range that cuts roughly down the middle of the state. The portion of this habitat between the Tensas and Atchafalaya River basins is the so-called “corridor” that the USFWS says supports crossover between the state’s two viable breeding subpopulations (the other two subpopulations weren’t the main focus of recovery efforts). Passing smack through the middle of it, we see only pockets of trees broken up by swaths of farmland.

“There’s a lot more open land than there is forest,” Davidson says. “You certainly can’t show me a corridor on a map that’s some sort of linear green belt. That doesn’t exist.”

I put this concern to Debbie Fuller, the USFWS biologist who authored the delisting proposal, and she explained that “[bears] are way more flexible and generalistic than people understand.” The delisting proposal goes further to explain the wide range of habitats bears can occupy beyond large-tract forests: marshes, wooded spoil banks along bayous, salt domes and—yes—agricultural fields.

These days, Davidson is a one-man show—at most he led a staff of three—and his priority is education. He estimates 50,000 people have seen one of his presentations. He also oversees the rehabilitation of 750 acres of habitat a year through tree planting. But the Black Bear Conservation Coalition’s larger role in managing the bear was curtailed after Jindal appointed Robert Barham as his LDWF secretary in 2008. Barham has spent much of his tenure advocating for the state’s first bear hunt since 1988. The BBCC clashed with LDWF over the issue, Davidson says, leading to a falling out.

Interestingly, many folks here are quick to self-identify as hunters in one breath and oppose the delisting in the next. When I called a state police official to get a count on the number of “Save the Louisiana Black Bear” license plates the state has sold—8,100, for what it’s worth—the guy on the phone volunteered that he was a hunter who wanted to keep the bear federally protected. “There are plenty of other animals you can hunt,” he said.

Still, the allure of slaying a bear persists. Florida hunters just had their first black bear season in more than two decades and killed 298 animals in 48 hours. Perhaps this was the demographic Jindal was appealing to at his press conference last May. The closing speaker—none other than Teddy Roosevelt IV—spent several minutes detailing the hunting exploits of his great-grandfather and Holt Collier.

It was an odd ending note for an occasion marking an achievement of conservation, but in the same spirit as the time two years ago when the LDWF served meat from a euthanized nuisance bear at a Hunting and Fishing Day event in Baton Rouge. I asked the LDWF’s deputy secretary about the menu and he said that they were teaching hunters about conservation, “which includes utilizing the entire animal when choosing to harvest an animal.”

Even if the bear gets delisted, Louisiana would be many years away from a sanctioned hunt. Fuller, the delisting proposal’s author, says there would be at least a seven-year federal monitoring period during which no hunting could occur.

In the meantime, the modest gains made by the Louisiana black bear have led to an increase in human-bear interactions. As Davidson drives in the direction of a beaver pond in hopes of happening upon a thirsty bear, he points out that the Yancey Wildlife Management Area used to be one of his release points when he oversaw the state’s nuisance bear program. Relocation rarely kept bears from returning to their home territory, though, so he began using rubber shot and Black Mouth Curs to “haze” them out of residential areas. He laments that since the state relieved him of those duties in 2008, euthanization has become more common. (According to the LDWF, the state has never had a bear injure a person.)

“Bears aren’t the evil, man-eating, dog-eating critters they’re made out to be,” Davidson says. “Cows kill more people than bears. Vending machines kill more people than bears. Fear is a powerful marketing tool.”

But as he leads me on foot into a dry stretch of forest, a carpet of leaves crunching beneath our feet, I begin to feel that marketing message wash over me. The hair on the back of my neck stands up and I contemplate how I’ll react if I see a bear. Will I run?

Davidson moves quietly and purposefully, following tangents only he can see, leading me to the beaver pond. We look past the cypresses at water’s edge and scan the pond’s perimeter for a bear. There’s no sound but the whir of a thousand cicadas. After a moment, he sighs. “They’re secretive.”

Ron Nowak has a compromise for the politicians hankering for a hunt: Shoot the bears in the Upper Atchafalaya and spare the rest. Those bears, he asserts, “pose the most insidious threat that there can be: the loss of the genome.”

Nowak, 72, isn’t a heartless killer—far from it. In fact, the former USFWS endangered species biologist is the man responsible for sparking Schoeffler’s interest in the bear years ago. The New Orleans native’s 1980s research on the luteolus subspecies laid the foundation for much of the work that’s been done in the years since, and his crusade to get the bear listed started all the way back when the USFWS first hired him in 1973.

Now in semi-retirement in the D.C. area, Nowak has a bombshell that could invalidate the entire delisting proposal: Those Upper Atchafalaya bears, one of the Service’s viable subpopulations, may not even be Louisiana black bears. In the 1960s the LDWF relocated American black bears from Minnesota into the area. The Service has downplayed the influence of these bears, but Nowak contends that recent genetic research proves the bears in this area today are descendants of the Minnesota bears. (Any American black bear that wanders into the state enjoys the same protections as Louisiana black bears, since the subspecies are too hard for a hunter to tell apart.) Through hybridization, these bears could hypothetically wipe out the traits that make the luteolus subspecies unique—and without luteolus traits, there is no Louisiana black bear. “You can’t take something else from somewhere else and put it down there and suddenly say, ‘This is the Louisiana black bear, too,’” Nowak says. “It’s not. It’s not biologically, and it’s not legally.”

Nowak iterated these points in a 25-page rebuttal that he submitted when the delisting proposal was posted online for public comment last summer. Fuller, the proposal’s author, is currently in the process of reviewing his along with all other comments, which were overwhelmingly anti-delisting. “That’s a very serious comment and we’re taking it seriously,” she says. Translation: If any one issue can unravel the delisting process, this is it.

There is one subpopulation of the bear that, by virtue of its geographic isolation, is both irrefutably luteolus but also in imminent danger: the Lower Atchafalaya bears that Schoeffler and I failed to spy in July. Since 1992, 246 bears have been killed in Louisiana by cars—far more than by any other cause—and many of these accidents have been along US 90 near the coast. Because of the threat of the automobiles, and, in the long-term, rising seas, these coastal bears are the most vulnerable subpopulation, but no permanent protection for them is required for luteolus to be delisted.

I make one more attempt to see a coastal bear, in the fall, when cooler weather should increase my odds. I head to Avery Island, source of the famed Tabasco pepper sauce, and home to a much-loved population of native bears.

black bear

Avery Island bears are often photographed by local residents. Photo by: Pam McIlhenny

The “island” is actually a 2,200-acre salt dome surrounded by a sea of marshland. I avoid the most-trodden paths and soon come upon a heap of munched-on acorns at the edge of a thicket. I crouch, becoming keenly aware of every crunch, crackle, and groan around me. Not far away, I find telltale bear tracks—deep and fringed with claw marks. I’m alone this time, and my heart races at the thought of running into my first wild bear.

I don’t, which probably should come as no surprise at this point. But after hiking all over the state, I’ve come to learn a truth about top-of-the-food-chain wildlife. As with wolves and mountain lions, just knowing they’re out there changes the landscape, makes it more exciting, more wild.

For the sake of trying to eyeball the traits that distinguish the Louisiana black bear, I make one other trip, to the only place I’m certain I’ll find one: the zoo.

Audubon Zoo, nestled among the oaks of Uptown New Orleans, is home to Betsy and Camille, two 15-year-old bears named for a pair of devastating hurricanes. One placard at their exhibit tells the story of the Teddy Bear, while another identifies them as Louisiana black bears. A family giggles as one wallows in the shade and the other scratches its back. I try to make out the defining luteolus trait—the narrow, long skull—and convince myself that Betsy and Camille have it. Of course I’m wrong, which I learn when I meet with exhibit curator Rick Atkinson. There, he admits that these are not luteolus at all—they’re American black bears he bought from a wildlife park in South Dakota.

“I feel a tad guilty not having a Louisiana black bear,” Atkinson says, and he has reasons—for one, he says, they’d likely be bears in need of rehabilitation resources the zoo can’t provide. He also expresses lament at the placard misidentifying them as Louisiana black bears: “I’m not happy with our graphic. . . I keep being told that they’re expensive [to replace].”

I think about the family chuckling at Betsy and Camille, though, and wonder: If nobody can tell the difference between an American black bear and a Louisiana black bear, who cares?

I asked Schoeffler this weeks earlier, on our drive back from the coast. He more than anyone can claim the moral high ground on this issue, and when he clambered into his bully pulpit, he sounded less like the chairman of the local Sierra Club and more like a preacher.

“The Louisiana black bear is a symbol of our Southern wilderness,” he said, chewing on the words. “Its recovery is an atonement for our sins.”

He’s not grieving, he’s challenging his fellow Louisianians: Here, in spite of all the damage we’ve done to our Gulf and our swamp and our forests, is an opportunity to take care of a species that spiritually and biologically belongs to Louisiana. If we can’t take care of this one animal, what hope does that give us in the face of hurricanes, oil spills, rising seas?

Maybe the Louisiana black bear has recovered, and maybe it hasn’t, but one thing is certain: when it’s gone, it’s gone. And the only thing left will be a story about a stuffed toy.

Nick Weldon lives in New Orleans. On his failed quest to see a Louisiana black bear, he did see a wild hog.