The Louisiana black bear (Ursus americanus lutelous) is one of 16 unique subspecies of the American black bear (Ursus americanus americanus) in North America (Hall 1981). The subspecies historically ranged throughout Louisiana, into east Texas and southwest Mississippi, and in the southernmost counties of Arkansas (Hall 1981, Neal 1992; Fig. 1). However, because of overexploitation and rapid habitat fragmentation and loss, the subspecies was reduced in number and distribution by the early 1900s and restricted to remnant forest patches in the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Alluvial Plains (St. Amant 1959, Nowak 1986, Pelton 2001). Within Louisiana, an 1890 record indicated 17 parishes harbored resident bears, all of them in the Mississippi-Atchafalaya region (Kopman 1921).
According to St. Amant (1959), most extensive areas of bottomland hardwoods in Louisiana had “at least a few bears,” with the greatest numbers found in the denser woodlands along the Tensas, Red, Black, and Atchafalaya Rivers. Bear hunting was prominent in Louisiana during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and widespread deforestation occurred to provide wood products and to create lands suitable for agriculture. This continued exploitation and habitat loss eventually restricted bears to 2 areas in Louisiana by the mid-20th century: the Tensas-Madison area in northeast Louisiana and in the lower fringes of the Atchafalaya River Basin. The bear population in Louisiana had been so severely exploited by the 1950s that St. Amant (1959) characterized bear numbers as sparse, and Nowak (1986) estimated as few as 80 to 120 bears remained statewide by this time.
Despite the apparent population decline in the state by the 1950s, bear hunting remained legal in portions of Louisiana through the late 1980s. Organized bear hunts were uncommon as bear abundance and density continued to decrease during the mid-20th century (Taylor 1971); however, during a December 1955 bear hunt in northeastern Louisiana, 5 bears were harvested (St. Amant 1959). The acting Director of the Louisiana Wild Life and Fisheries Commission during this time recommended that the bear season be closed because of small population size (J. Herring, LDWF, personal communication), and the Commission closed all bear harvest seasons temporarily in 1956. In an attempt to augment the small, remnant population in Louisiana, 161 black bears were translocated from Minnesota to the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River basins from 1964 to 1967 by LDWF (Taylor 1971). However, continued reductions of available bear habitat occurred as forested lands were converted to agriculture throughout the Mississippi Alluvial Valley (MAV) during the 20th century, which exacerbated the decline of bear numbers in Louisiana.
While never extirpated from Louisiana, the subspecies had been so severely reduced in number and distribution that further consideration for protection occurred by 1981 (Weaver et al. 1991). In 1987, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) was petitioned by Mr. Harold Schoeffler to list the Louisiana black bear on the Threatened and Endangered Species List (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 1988). Following recognition as a distinct subspecies of the American black bear (Hall 1981, Kennedy 1989, Pelton 1989), the Louisiana black bear was listed as “threatened” in 1992 under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (Neal 1992). At the time protection was granted for the subspecies, no empirical estimates of bear population abundance were available. Anecdotal evidence reported by Pelton and van Manen (1997) suggested that fewer than 400 Louisiana black bears existed in a small portion of historic range, but this may have been an overestimate.
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):
- At least two viable subpopulations, one each in the Tensas and Atchafalaya River Basins;
- Establishment of immigration and emigration corridors between the two subpopulations;
- Protection of the habitat and interconnecting corridors that support each of the two viable subpopulations used as justification for delisting.
Since listed as a federally threatened subspecies, considerable work towards restoring the Louisiana black bear has occurred, and multiple state and federal agencies, research universities, and non-government organizations have played integral roles for bear recovery over the previous two decades. Numerous research projects have been conducted to estimate the demographic vital rates of subpopulations (Nowak 1986, Boersen et al. 2003, Triant et al. 2004, Hooker 2010, Lowe 2011, Troxler 2013, Laufenberg 2014, O’Connell-Goode et al. 2014), a repatriation project was conducted during 2001–2009 to establish an additional subpopulation (Benson and Chamberlain 2007, Savoie 2007), and more than 834,000 acres of habitat have been acquired, protected, and/or restored within the bear Habitat Restoration Planning Area (HRPA; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 2013). Collectively, these efforts have promoted restoration of the Louisiana black bear in portions of its historical range in Louisiana and western Mississippi (Fig. 1).
Currently, breeding subpopulations of Louisiana black bears occur in 4 individual areas within Louisiana: 1) Tensas River Basin, 2) Three Rivers Area, 3) Upper Atchafalaya River Basin, and 4) Lower Atchafalaya River Basin. Although bear populations, in general, exhibit annual fluctuations in abundance, recent research has indicated that >500 bears reside in Louisiana and that the greater Louisiana black bear population has a ≥99% probability of persistence (Laufenberg and Clark 2014).
Figure 1. The historic range (prior to European settlement [Hall 1981]) and current breeding range* of the Louisiana black bear (Ursus americanus luteolus). Modified from U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (2013). *Current Breeding Range is defined as the areas where reproductively active adult female bears have been documented.