Louisiana Black Bear proposed for de-listing as threatened and endangered under the ESA

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Sierra Club and especially Mr. Harold Schoeffler of the Acadian Group was an early and effective advocate for the listing of the Louisiana Black Bear as threatened and endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The listing took place in 1992 with a then current estimate of bear population in the state at about 300-400. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the bear on the grounds that habitat had been seriously depleted enough to threaten the existence of the bear.

Following listing of the Louisiana black bear, the USFWS developed a recovery plan in 1995 and established the following criteria to denote recovery of the subspecies (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 1995):

I. At least two viable subpopulations, one each in the Tensas and Atchafalaya River Basins;
II. Establishment of immigration and emigration corridors between the two subpopulations;
III. Protection of the habitat and interconnecting corridors that support each of the two viable subpopulations used as justification for delisting.

Now just 23 years after designation of critical habitat we are presented with a scenario in which the Secretary of Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) is pushing for de-listing of the bear. Current estimates of bear population are 500-750 bears in Louisiana. The claim is that this is an adequate population for the bear to sustain itself even under the pressure of a LDWF proposed bear hunting season.

Atchafalaya Basinkeeper (ABK) and Sierra Club Delta Chapter have submitted comments to LDWF opposing the de-listing of the Louisiana Black Bear making the following points among others:

1) An estimated current population of 500-750 is a very wide range. Where is the data to support the current population estimate.
2) Data on current causes of black bear mortality has not been made available. The absence of such data makes it impossible to assess the effect of LDWF policies such as its bear relocation policy, on bear mortality.
3) Where is the data to show the establishment of the immigration and emigration corridors between the two subpopulations. Review of existing maps shows open agricultural land between existing subpopulations, certainly not anything like contiguous forested corridors that would provide real migration routes.
4) What is the plan for protecting and increasing the habitat and interconnecting corridors that support the viable subpopulations. Many of the assumptions included in the existing plan such as the effectiveness of conservation easements to prevent logging are simply not verified by field observation.

Recommendations included in the ABK Sierra Club comments include the following:
1. Conduct accurate population counts in all black bear breeding areas.
2. Implement a complete investigation on black bear mortality, followed by a plan to reduce bear mortality.
3. Establish a strong education campaign to increase people’s tolerance for bears. It is not admissible that, even today, most hunters fear for their life when bears are in the area.
4. Create a nuisance bear program that includes help to protect crops and bee hives from bears and a bear damage compensation fund.
5. Stop relocating bears outside their home range to avoid creating problem bears.
6. Create corridors under Hwy. 90 to allow bears to safely cross the highway.
7. Create habitat blocks that will connect the coastal bear population with the Atchafalaya Basin.
8. Define characteristics needed for an efficient bear corridor. Create real corridors connecting all bear populations.
9. Acorns and hickory nuts are essential for bears. Other wildlife, like interior forests birds species and deer will also greatly benefit by protecting mature forests. Bear management plans should include preservation of mature bottomland hardwoods.
10. Change the environmental easements in the Atchafalaya Basin to exclude logging, while properly compensating landowners.
11. Stop all logging on National Wildlife Refuges and Wildlife Management Areas.
12. Stop granting permits for cypress logging in wetlands.
13. Enforce all laws that protect bear habitat, including the Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act.
14. Stop granting after-the-fact permits to violators of environmental laws.
15. Use permanent easements to protect all of those bottomland hardwood forests that were established to increase bear habitat and corridors.
16. Buy permanent environmental easements to protect all or most forests in critical bear habitat from development and logging.
17. Educate landowners about the true costs and challenges of managing bottomland hardwood forests and cypress swamps for timber, while maintaining ecological values. The cost of restoring a logged bottomland hardwood forest or cypress swamp can be several times the amount the landowner makes from the timber sale.
18. Educate law enforcers about the proper way to handle nuisance bears.
19. Prosecute poachers to the full extent of the law.

Sierra Club Delta Chapter observes that many of the supporting program pieces for a complete Black Bear recovery and sustainability plan do not exist in the State of Louisiana. The Chapter believes it is very premature to declare the bear as recovered and commence hunting as if everything is ok. We strongly request that LDWF stop the effort to de-list until all the data and program components are shown to be in place.

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