On the last day of his 1902 bear hunt in Mississippi Theodore Roosevelt had yet to fire a round. So his guides captured a geriatric bear and tied it to a tree for him to shoot. The president, a champion of fair chase, walked away in disgust. The resulting media frenzy is why children around the globe have “Teddy Bears.”
To wildlife managers of the day “a bear was a bear.” But the animal spared by TR was a Louisiana black bear, a subspecies larger than the other 15, with a narrower, flatter, longer skull. At that time as many as 80,000 Louisiana black bears may have ranged across 120,000 square miles in eastern Texas, southern Mississippi, southern Arkansas and all of Louisiana.
Then, in the 1950s, the soybean boom hit. Financed by the USDA’s Soil Conservation Service, farmers razed trees, bulldozing marketable timber into windrows and letting it rot. Much of the cleared land was too wet even for soybeans, but there was federal pork to be had.
“A bear was still a bear” in the 1960s, at least in the perception of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries which, from 1964 to 1967, transported 165 black bears from Minnesota and dumped them onto Louisiana black-bear habitat — 130 in the upper Atchafalaya River Basin and 35 in the Tensas River Basin. Fortunately, these were predominantly garbage-dump scroungers, and most were promptly shot or run over. While a few survive, genetic pollution of the native subspecies is thought to be minimal.
By 1980 at least 80 percent of the bottomland hardwood forest in the lower Mississippi River Valley had been destroyed and with it well over 99 percent of the bear population.
Ron Nowak, an endangered-species biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), confirmed from skull measurements that the Louisiana black bear was a distinct subspecies; but suddenly he wasn’t finding skulls to measure. Using the best available data, he estimated that only about 300 animals remained. Clearly, Nowak told his superiors, the subspecies needed Endangered Species Act protection.
But the State of Louisiana was openly hostile to an ESA listing, and Nowak’s bosses kept brushing him off. So in 1987 he committed what is perceived by federal bureaucrats as an unpardonable sin, successfully urging Sierra Club activist Harold Schoeffler to petition for an ESA listing. Nowak was swiftly reassigned to foreign endangered species.
In 1992, after five years of data bombardment by citizen conservationists, the USFWS listed the bear as threatened. The story of how these citizens saved the Louisiana black bear from almost certain extinction is a case study of how adversarial but intelligent stakeholders can unite to preempt what former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt called ESA “train wrecks.”
Spotted Owl of the South?
Concurrent with the battle leading to the listing was a spectacular train wreck in the Northwest. The bear would be “the spotted owl of the South,” proclaimed timber companies. They vowed to sue if it was listed; enviros vowed to sue if it wasn’t. Someone with ties to both camps needed to step up and flag down the converging locomotives.
That someone was tree farmer and attorney Murray Lloyd, chair of the Louisiana Forestry Association’s Wildlife and Recreation Committee and conservation chair of state Sierra Club. Lloyd knew enough people in the timber industry, environmental community and state and federal governments to convince all hands to work together for the bear.
“Let’s use the spotted-owl holy war as our model,” he told them — “for how not to do it.”
Thus was born the Black Bear Conservation Coalition. To date it has spent $4 million relocating sows and their cubs to vacant habitat, educating the public about the value of bears, mapping habitat, promoting easements and preserving the bear’s popularity by running off nuisance animals with dogs. The dramatic increase in bear numbers is mostly the Coalition’s doing. Citing that increase, the USFWS delisted the subspecies on March 10, 2016.
Well before the 1992 listing Lloyd brought to the Coalition local environmentalists and wildlife biologists from the timber companies. They met quarterly. One of the first participants was The Nature Conservancy. Conservancy employee Paul Davidson was eventually hired as Coalition director.
Lloyd and his partners hatched “the Southern Rules of Engagement”: 1. Come to the table because the world is run by people who show up; 2. Leave your organizational two-by-four at the door; 3. Pick solutions, not fights; 4. Attack ideas, not people; 5. Have fun.
“People thought we threw in number five just to be cute,” says Lloyd. “But we realized this could take 20 years; and if you’re going to invest that much time, you better enjoy it. The night before each meeting we held a social event with dinner—crawfish in Louisiana, barbecue in Texas, catfish in Mississippi.”
The Coalition pioneered use of the Farm Bill’s new Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) for ESA work by encouraging farmers to let the Soil Conservation Service pay them to restore some of the same bottomland hardwood forests the agency had paid them to destroy.
“We had to reconnect isolated patches of habitat and facilitate gene flow,” says Keith Ouchley, The Nature Conservancy’s director for Louisiana and Mississippi. “So with the conservation community we came up with a reforesting plan that involved private landowners, public agencies and NGOs. There was a big demand by landowners for WRP funds. And a lot of them wanted the bear; it was a symbol of this great southern swamp-forest, part of our heritage. After about 20 years of hard, on-the-ground conservation work we restored almost a million acres of bottomland hardwood forest.”
And this from John Pitre of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS, the new name Congress gave the Soil Conservation Service in 1994): “Under WRP we bought easements to reforest ag lands that should never have been cleared. Louisiana leads the nation in WRP easements; and Mississippi and Arkansas are right behind us. So we have a tremendous amount of restored bear habitat. We thought the bears needed more advanced forests, but they moved into new growth immediately; we even had reproduction.”
Pitre describes the 2016 delisting as “what all biologists dream about, the highlight of my career.”
Recovery of a Bear, and an Ecosystem
It’s not just bears that are recovering; it’s the entire bottomland ecosystem. As former cropland heals, bobwhite quail and grassland birds like meadow larks and dickcissels are proliferating. Where healing nears completion forest birds like warblers and vireos are nesting again; and the closing canopy makes them less vulnerable to nest parasitism by cowbirds. There has been an enormous increase in mallards, gadwalls, green-winged teal and wood ducks. Even fish and mussels (some imperiled) benefit as new trees prevent flooding and improve water quality by stabilizing watersheds.
The Louisiana black bear hasn’t “recovered”; it’s recovering. The USFWS reports that the population has more than doubled, perhaps to 750. Ron Nowak, Murray Lloyd, and Black Bear Conservation Coalition director Paul Davidson believe that’s not enough, that delisting was premature, that annual bear mortality has been underestimated, that recovery-goal attainment was exaggerated, that land subsidence and ocean rise is shrinking habitat, that surviving Minnesota bears were wrongly counted as Louisiana black bears and that danger of genetic introgression still exists.
“The conservation community recognizes that with this Republican Congress there’s going to be an effort to undermine the ESA. So Interior is scrambling to show success stories,” declares Davidson. Maybe so.
Still, much of the environmental community, the Conservancy included, strongly supported delisting. “All recovery criteria has been met,” submits Ouchley.
One thing everyone agrees on is that the Louisiana black bear is doing very well. That alone is an ESA success story. Even the ultra-litigious Center for Biological Diversity, which is forever suing the feds for alleged ESA transgressions, proclaims that the delisting proves “the Endangered Species Act does work.”
Good people can disagree on the appropriateness of that delisting, and time will tell who’s right. But such debates, especially for species further along in recovery like gray wolves and grizzlies, raise this point: When a species is no longer in significant danger of extinction, even when not fully recovered (and few ever are), it needs to be delisted. That way limited funds and staffing can be applied to keeping critically imperiled species on the planet.