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Wetlands restore black bear habitat

Last year, I reported on Louisiana black bears in Mississippi and Louisiana. The she-bear, which crossed the Mississippi River and resided in Mississippi during July 2005, was equipped with a satellite global positioning collar.

She gave birth to two healthy female cubs sometime in late February 2006 on private land enrolled in the Wetland Reserve Program.

Their den is located in Issaquena County on land owned by Hunter and Dan Fordice, the sons of former Gov. Kirk Fordice and First Lady Pat Fordice. This is the first documented reproduction in the Mississippi Delta since the mid-1970s.

Bear biologist Brad Young of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, and Shauna Ginger, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, discovered the cubs in early March.

In Louisiana, a cooperative habitat restoration program that restores wetlands on marginally and non-productive croplands recently helped produce five black cub litters. One den was located on a recently planted tract in Bayou Cocodrie National Wildlife Refuge.

The remaining four dens were located on privately owned properties enrolled in WRP. This valuable program added 10 black bear cubs to the threatened population of Louisiana black bears.

The first bear litter documented on WRP lands was found in 2004 adjacent to Tensas River NWR in northeast Louisiana. Two additional litters were discovered in 2006, and two more in 2007.

While some females may breed at three years of age, it is likely that most do not breed until they are four. They give birth in late January or early February — often while the females are in hibernation-like state. Litter sizes range from one to three cubs with instances of four cubs on record.

The black bear is a habitat generalist and often overwinters in hollow cypress trees either in or along sloughs, lakes or riverbanks in bottomland hardwoods. The distribution and abundance of foods, particularly mast such as nuts and berries, largely affects their movement. Important elements of black bear habitat include hard and soft mast, escape cover, den sites, travel corridors and minimum human disturbance.

The Louisiana black bear is a docile creature that poses no threat to humans. It once roamed throughout Louisiana, east Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi. The hope is that it will once again be established in the forests and wildlife areas along the Mississippi River in Louisiana and saved from extinction.

They were considered numerous at the time of early colonization, serving as food both for Native Americans and white settlers. It is now restricted primarily to the Tensas and Atchafalaya river basin in Louisiana. However, black bear sightings are on the rise in Mississippi, especially in the Delta. Bear restoration efforts are currently under way and there is hope that breeding populations will return to the state.

In Paul Schullery's book, The Bear Hunter's Century, five out of 10 of North America's greatest bear hunters hunted bears in Mississippi or Louisiana at some point in their lives. Men such as Ben Lily, Robert E. Bobo, Wade Hampton III, Holt Collier, and, of course, President Theodore Roosevelt became legends in the world of hunting due to the fact they hunted the black bear.

Collier, Bobo and Hampton lived in Mississippi, while Lily spent a short time in Louisiana bear hunting there and across the river in Mississippi. He later moved and continued bear hunting out West.

Roosevelt had two hunts in the Mid-South, one in Louisiana and the other in Mississippi, near Smedes. Each hunt was covered extensively in the press at the time.

This potential breeding population of Louisiana black bears in Mississippi moves us one-step closer to recovery and delisting for this species.

The Wetlands Reserve Program benefits many wildlife species, including waterfowl. Currently, Mississippi ranks third in the nation for total acres enrolled in WRP, with over 430 easements that total approximately 150,000.

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