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Outdoor Corner: The Bear Facts

Lyle Johnson

We made a trip to Alaska this summer, and one of the expectations of just about everybody who visits there is to see a bear. The Grizzly bear usually tops of the list, but there are plenty of black bears there as well.

One of the grizzly bears we saw in Alaska; shall we see a black bear here in the near future? Who knows?

Bears are a top predator in the animal food chain, so along with their size and fear that they instill, this makes them a fascination to humans. We are scared of them, but something draws us to want to see them up close. To see a bear in Louisiana was not something one would even think about even a few years ago.

Here in Louisiana, the black bear once ranged throughout our state and parts of Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas. The black bear was common at the time of early colonization, serving as food both for Indians and white settlers.

More than 80 percent of prime Louisiana black bear habitat in the Mississippi River floodplain had been lost by the early 1990s, primarily due to clearing land for agriculture. Quality of the remaining habitat has been reduced by fragmentation and human activities.

A pair of grizzlies we spotted in Denali National Park on one of our trips.

An 1890 record shows 17 parishes containing bears, all of them in the Mississippi River-Atchafalaya Basin regions. It was reported that the most extensive areas of bottomland hardwoods in the state have “at least a few bears,” with the greatest number found in the denser woodlands along the Tensas, Red, Black, and Atchafalaya Rivers. 

In 1902, President Teddy Roosevelt, a very avid hunter, was on a bear hunting trip in the Mississippi Delta when he refused to kill a Louisiana black bear that was tethered to a tree. That action along with a lot of others earned him the moniker of founder of the modern conservation movement and the phrase, “teddy bear.”

In the late 1950s, bears occupied habitat in the Tensas-Madison area in northeast Louisiana and in the lower fringes of the Atchafalaya Basin.  The bear population in Louisiana at this time was reported as “sparse” with an estimated 80 to 120 bears.  Although there were few bears in the state, hunting was still permitted. 

The Black bear could be legally hunted in parts of Louisiana through the late-1980s, but there was little interest due to low bear numbers and hunts were uncommon.  One of the last organized bear hunts in Louisiana occurred December 15, 1955.  During this hunt, five bears were harvested in the Lake Providence area. 

It was recommended to the Wildlife Commission that the bear season be closed. Bear hunting was closed the following season and remained closed until 1961.  The season was opened again from 1962-1965 with hunting permitted only in northeast Louisiana and in the coastal parishes.  The hunting season was again closed from 1966 to 1974.  It was reopened in 1975-1987 with hunting restricted to the Atchafalaya Basin. The Louisiana bear hunting season has remained closed since 1988.

Through restocking efforts using live-trapped bears in Cook County, Minnesota and released in the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River bottoms and a lot of hard work, the black bear has made quite a comeback.

In fact, for the past few springs, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) has issued advisories in St. Mary Parish residents to take precautions to minimize encounters with black bears. This years’ advisory followed the recent injury of a dog that chased a bear in a Patterson neighborhood.

Bears seek food sources in and around neighborhoods throughout the parish. This can include plentiful live oak acorns in people’s yards and unsecured garbage containers. Pet food containers left outdoors will also attract black bears.

LDWF has partnered with St. Mary Parish to provide homeowners bear-proof garbage containers to control this easy-access food source problem. Homeowners who already have bear-proof garbage containers are advised to make sure the cans are locked and not overfilled.

During this peak time of higher than normal bear activity, St Mary parish residents are advised to secure their dogs.  Bears are normally shy and non-confrontational, but will protect themselves and their cubs when chased by dogs. Intentional feeding of bears is against state law and violators are subject to citations. 

There was even an investigation by The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries of a killing of a calf by a black bear in West Carroll Parish. The incident occurred on private property near Epps, between sunset Wednesday, April 24 and sunrise Thursday, April 25.

LDWF Wildlife Division staff responded to the reported incident, performing a necropsy to determine the cause of the calf’s death. This is the first confirmed incident of a bear killing livestock since the department’s black bear program was created to restore the threatened species population in Louisiana.

“It is unusual for black bears in Louisiana to exhibit predatory behavior.  They are primarily opportunistic omnivores, feeding on fruits, nuts, grains, carrion and when available, garbage,” said Maria Davidson, LDWF Large Carnivore Program Manager.

The Tensas River basin in the northeast corner of the state is one of three black bear population centers that also include the lower Atchafalaya Basin and Pointe Coupee Parish. 

The Bear facts is that the population has been restored for the black bear to become a nuisance and has reached numbers to once again have a hunting season for them. It takes a long time for that to happen but it will be soon. Remember to keep the slack out and set the hook hard. Until next time, have fun in the outdoors, be safe and may God bless you!