Saving Teddy’s Bear – sharp decrease in the number of black bears in the southeastern states as natural habitat has been destroyed
Janine E. Guglielmino
The species that inspired the world’s favorite stuffed animal is helping land managers revitalize a fragmented landscape.
When President Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear during a 1902 hunting trip in the Mississippi woods, he couldn’t have known the mythology that would result.
That gesture and the media coverage it received led to worldwide demand for a snuggly stuffed animal fashioned after the Louisiana black bear (Ursus americanus luteolus). But even as “Teddy’s bear” proliferated in the form of a child’s toy, the species that inspired it steadily declined in the wild.
Scientists can only guess at historical numbers. But some say thousands and thousands of Louisiana black bear once roamed the rich forested bottomland of eastern Texas, Louisiana, and southern Mississippi. Before white settlement in the 1800s, Native Americans used the bear for clothing, food, and jewelry. Early colonists exported thousands of bear skins and tons of bear grease to Europe, according to historical accounts.
Nearly two centuries later, few bears remain. The hardwood forests and alluvial plains that once provided food and shelter have fallen to the ax and the plow. By 1980 more than 80 percent of the bear’s traditional hardwood habitat had disappeared, according to the federal Fish and Wildlife Service’s 1995 Louisiana Black Bear Recovery Plan. Many forests were cleared for farming, even though some failed to produce viable crops for landowners.
“In the past Louisiana had a huge land base of woods,” says Ray Aycock, an FWS wildlife biologist in Louisiana and Mississippi. “Now it’s just scattered… there are beaucoups of land here that should never have been cleared and aren’t profitable for the landowner.”
Today the estimated 300 to 400 surviving bears live in two discrete populations: one in the Tensas River Basin in northeastern Louisiana, the other in the Atchafalaya River Basin in the southcentral portion of the state. A handful of bears live in Iberia and St. Mary parishes (counties) on Louisiana’s southwest coast, but they would have to travel more than 150 miles to meet another bear-a distance akin to walking from Philadelphia to Washington, DC.
That’s a major concern for a species that depends on large, contiguous areas of forest. Black bears evolved in thick, vegetative, impenetrable habitat, says Michael Pelton, a professor of wildlife science at the University of Tennessee who has dedicated his 32-year career to studying bear species. Black bears, which range between 3 and 6 feet tall when standing on their hind legs and weigh between 150 and 300 pounds, use trees for escape, feeding, and shelter. Because of their climbing ability, black bears have been able to elude predators, usually larger members of their own species, humans, and domestic animals.
Louisiana black bears use trees for food and denning. The forest provides a cornucopia of fruits, nuts, meat, and insects, offering everything from blackberry and elderberry to palmetto and walking stick. In autumn bears turn their taste buds to high-carbohydrate meals such as oak and pecan. But as “omnivores and generalists,” Pelton says, black bears will also happily chomp on agricultural crops such as corn, wheat, or soybean-and, of course, honey and bee larvae.
Male black bears have remarkable homing instincts as well and have traveled great distances, some up to 400 miles, to return to their homestead. Mother bears remain deep in the forest canopy, using logged-over slash to build dens and hiding cubs in tall trees for protection from other animals and people.
One population of Louisiana black bear lives on Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge, a 65,000-acre tract in northeast Louisiana. The nearby 19,212-acre Big Lake Wildlife Management Area provides additional habitat for roving bears. But lands north of the refuge show how forest fragmentation can imperil the survival of even a well-established bear population.
Not far from the Refuge, the Deltic Timber Corp. owns land inhabited by about 50 bears, Pelton says. But those bears cannot interact with refuge bears because “an ocean of agricultural fields” separates them. interstate 20 and Highway 80 snake through those lands as well, creating a concrete roadblock that in all Pelton’s years of study only one bear has dared cross.
“The degree of fragmentation is as extreme as I’ve ever seen in a study area,” says Pelton. “Yet we still found about 50 bears living out there. The females stayed on each woodlot; we only had one animal leave and go south to the refuge.”
With the number of bears falling and fragmentation increasing, FWS in 1992 listed the species as threatened. In its 1995 recovery plan the agency warned, “Further loss of occupied habitat added incrementally to past losses could breach the minimum habitat size necessary to ensure continued survival.” In other words, more lost habitat could spell the bear’s eventual demise.
Pelton agrees. If development continues on its present course, species such as the bear, Florida panther, and red wolf will be lost, he says.
“If those open lands become golf courses and subdivisions and strip malls, it’s a lost cause,” Pelton says.
But the bear’s fans refuse to let that happen. Even before FWS listed the species, some scientists launched an effort to restore the bear’s habitat and to preserve those few wild spaces where they continue to thrive. Only 10 people attended the Black Bear Conservation Committee’s (BBCC) first meeting in 1990, just as the FWS posted its intent to list the species. Today, more than 50 organizations take part, including industry, government, nonprofit, and landowner groups. Their goal: “to figure out how to make it in the landowners’ best interest to do the right thing,” says Paul Davidson, the BBCC’s executive director.
“Any long-term solution with a species has to deal with the interests that own and work the land,” Davidson says. “We’re never going to be able to have a viable population of all the species we want to protect unless we work with the local landowners.”
Davidson, a self-professed bear lover who says he could “talk about bears for hours,” joined the BBCC during the era of the spotted owl. His initial charge: to keep the Louisiana black bear from becoming a southern version of that conflict, which pitted landowners against environmentalists and the federal government.
“We wanted to circumvent a spotted owl controversy, where they spent millions on litigation,” Davidson says. “We wanted to spend millions on the ground feeding bears instead of feeding lawyers.”
That meant helping people better understand black bear habitat and behavior. For example, some landowners believed the presence of black hear meant they could no longer cut trees. But bears use cut-over habitat for food and cover, says Dean Stewart, a wildlife specialist in the department of wildlife and fisheries at Mississippi State University’s Extension service. Bears build wintering dens with logging slash, and mixed-age forests offer nuts and cover.
“The Louisiana black bear is not a liability for landowners,” Davidson says. “They allow for normal forestry management. The real danger is in the conversion of land to other types of development, like strip malls.”
For Davidson and some other BBCC members, perhaps the most appealing part of revitalizing bear habitat comes from its side effects–healing and reconnecting the South’s fragmented landscape. Some landowners bristle at talk of ecosystem management because they associate it with government regulation, Davidson says, but “if you talk about bears, it doesn’t raise the hairs on their backs.” So while property owners plant trees for bears, those trees also will improve air and water quality, fight soil erosion, and sequester carbon.
“You can use a charismatic creature like a hear to allow [FWS] to do ecosystem management without sending up red flags,” Davidson says.
That’s good news for Louisiana black bear, which needs a corridor of trees to ensure its survival. Connecting the Tensas and Atchafalaya populations would he “a major coup,” Pelton says.
“If we provide a corridor system that’s not disturbed or developed, we have the capability to sustain the bears in the future,” Pelton says. As for the kind of corridor: “The wider, the more impenetrable, the more secluded, the better.”
A combination of federal, state, and nonprofit tree-planting programs just might make that corridor a reality. Since 1992 the federal Wetlands Reserve Program, run by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has helped plant trees on 250,000 acres in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas, according to the agency. Another federal program, the USDA Farm Service Agency’s Conservation Reserve Program, has planted 155,00 acres in Louisiana.
Nonprofit organizations are helping as well. AMERICAN FORESTS’ Global ReLeaf Forests program is planting two sites for Louisiana black bear habitat: St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi and Bayou Cocrodie National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana. The program has planted 1,070 acres with species such as cypress, nutall and overcup oak, and pecan. Such efforts can help public land managers achieve tree-planting goals when funding falls short of the agency’s mandate.
“We have a backlog of 5,000 acres to restore with no line item budget to do it,” says Aycock. “We would not have been able to reforest the acres we have without the Global ReLeaf grant.”
Southern tree-planting projects are exciting because they create “almost instant” bear habitat, Aycock says. Trees grow quickly in the South because of long growing seasons and abundant rainfall. Louisiana black bear use those fast-growing trees for food and cover; other species, such as neotropical birds, deer, rodents, hawk, owl, eagle, fox, and bobcat, utilize the baby trees as well.
The southern forest probably will never return to its presettlement state. But the wooded corridors present in Roosevelt’s time just might be possible. Cooperation, communication, and growing support for incentive programs make the future hopeful for Teddy’s bear.
“If you had said 10 years ago that these things would be falling into place, I would have said, ‘There’s no way that’s going to take place,'” Davidson says. “It’s remarkable, and the beauty of it is no one group can take credit for it.”
Janine Guglielmino is associate editor of American Forests.
Louisiana black bear is but one mammal struggling to survive in the world’s increasingly fragmented forests. Nearly 25 percent of the world’s mammals are threatened with extinction, says a 1996 International Union for the Conservation of Nature study. The most significant threats include habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation.
Those threats are narrowing options for the world’s largest wildcat, the Siberian (Amur) tiger (Panther tigris altaica). The tiger, native to the Russian Far East and possibly the Koreas and China, has deteriorated because of intensive logging, road-building, and development in its habitat, says Dale Miquelle, regional coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society and Hornocker Wildlife Institute.
“Habitat destruction and fragmentation … is the long-term and most insidious threat, because it happens so gradually and apparently innocuously,” Miquelle says. “Once the forest is gone, the tiger is doomed.”
Adult male Amur tigers can weigh nearly 800 pounds and grow up to 10 feet long. They live in the Russian “taiga,” coniferous and hardwood forests that reach from sea level to more than 3,000 feet. Today 200 to 400 tigers remain, survivors that battle fragmentation’s effects as well as poachers and hunters. A traditional ingredient in Asian medicines, tiger parts draw dollars on the international market. Hunters sometimes kill the cats because they are viewed as prey competitors.
Access to prey may be one of the biggest factors in the animal’s survival. Forests provide cover and nourishment for deer, elk, wild boar, and other small mammals that serve as food for the black-and-orange striped cat.
“These species depend on forest environments,” Miquelle says. “Without well-managed forests, the prey will disappear, and with them, so will the tiger.”
Concerned individuals and corporations are taking action to heal the tiger’s fragmented landscape. AMERICAN FORESTS’ Global ReLeaf program will sponsor the planting of 100,000 Korean pine early next spring at two sites in the Russian Far East. The project, part of a $1 million commitment from the Exxon Corporation to plant trees internationally and in the U.S., will benefit tigers by creating wildlife corridors and producing Korean pine nuts–the so-called “bread” of the taiga because they provide food for prey sepcies, Miquelle says.
Exxon’s Vice president for public Affairs Tony Atkiss called the partnership “a long-term investment that will benefit future generations.”
That investment includes local people, who will plant trees and learn about the tiger’s role in the environment. The Primorsky Krai Department of Forestry and the Pacific Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences will provide comprehensive scientific support and monitor the site for three years.
The Global ReLeaf trees will help support Exxon’s tiger restoration efforts. Working with the Save The Tiger Fund, a partnership of Exxon and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Exxon has spent about $6.9 million on more than 100 projects since 1995. Its efforts are aimed at helping Amur as well as other tiger subspecies: Bengal, Sumatran, Indochinese, and South Chinese. (The Caspian, Ball, and Javan tigers disappeared’ in the early 20th century.)
Exxon has committed to planting 1 million trees with AMERICAN FORESTS’ Global ReLeaf program. Some of those trees will reforest a site at Sikhote-Alin Reserve in the Far East that suffers from yearly wildfires.
“If tree planting is done in the right places,” Miqeile says, “it could help restore connectivity of isolated patches of habitat.’
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