Land designated for black bear critical habitat

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 19, 2009

BATON ROUGE — The Louisiana black bear has a little more land to roam.

The federal government last month designated nearly 1,900 square miles of land in 15 Louisiana parishes as critical habitat for the black bear.

The goal of the designation, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species Program Coordinator Deborah Fuller, is to allow bears to move easily between the three areas where they live now — the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge and two areas and in the Atchafalaya River basin.

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The designation took effect April 9, and over the next 20 years it might add an average of $55,000 to $430,000 per year to the total costs of exploring and drilling for oil and gas in the state.

But most of those costs will come from analyzing the effects of clearing land.

As the executive director of the Black Bear Conservation Coalition, Paul Davidson is passionate about Louisiana black bear habitats.

But he was not a proponent of the critical habitat designation.

“We already have that set up,” Davidson said. “We felt it was redundant. It adds no extra safeguards for bears but does add extra paperwork.

“Our key stakeholder in bear recovery is private landowners, and anything that is perceived to have a negative impact on private landowners will have a negative impact on bear recovery.”

Davidson said the critical habitat doesn’t actually add any new land to the protected bear areas but removes all agricultural land from designation.

It’s more of an update to keep in step with better computer mapping technology than anything else, he said.

“It had more to do with better mapping technology so they could subtract lands under servitude,” Davidson said. “They took out wetland reserve program easements, but they already have a perpetual easement that doesn’t allow for any adverse modification anyway.”

Davidson said the designation of critical habitat is an outdated formality but has not been removed from law.

It was originally ordered under the Endangered Species Act, which was enacted in 1973 and hasn’t changed since.

“(The government) has streamlined the process and made it easier to regulate and manage, but some of that means they don’t do stuff the law says they should do,” Davidson said. “You can talk to any senator or representative in the state or in the country, and they’ll all say the Endangered Species Act is so controversial they won’t touch it. The really positive changes have been done through the way the regulations are implemented.”

But Davidson said a Denver law firm came to Louisiana and found local plaintiffs to sign onto a lawsuit to force the government to follow the direct letter of the law.

He said they didn’t care so much about the black bears as they did making money. The law made sense originally, he said, but it doesn’t work anymore.

The parishes involved in the designation are Avoyelles, East Carrol, Catahoula, Concordia, Franklin, Iberia, Iberville, Madison, Pointe Coupee, Richland, St. Martin, St. Mary, Tensas, West Carroll and West Feliciana.

The Louisiana black bear was listed as a threatened animal in 1992, when there were only about 80 left in the state.

The bears are small — females average 120 to 250 pounds, and the males average 150 to 350 pounds.

Davidson said the bears are thriving now, although there is no official number of the state’s current population.

“We never knew how many there were, and we don’t know how many there are now,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a four-year study that will help with that. In all the research that’s been done, we’ve caught 475 different adult bears and at least that many cubs.”

Kelly Purkey, manager of the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge, said the study traps and tags bears and also uses genetics to count the population.

Barbed-wire fences have been set up around food bait areas, and when bears go through them some hair gets caught in the barbs.

Scientists then analyze the hair for DNA to tell whether the bear has been recorded before.

Davidson said a lot of money being spent on bear population data, but the results have been impressive.

“We are seeing bears and reproducing bears in just about every Mississippi County on the Mississippi River,” he said. “We’re talking about places where nobody has seen bears in decades.

“Bears are doing well — we know their populations are increasing. The amount of bears killed by cars on highways continues to go up, and the number of bears entering neighborhoods continues to go up.”