By Matt Starlight
In 1990, the Fish and Wildlife Services announced that the Louisiana Black Bear was soon to be listed as a threatened species, and that it can “primarily be attributed to human activity, which includes habitat loss, unregulated harvest, and neglect through lack of management,” according to the Black Bear Conservation Coalition.
Out of this unfortunate turn of events rose an organization dedicated to preserving Louisiana’s state mammal whose very culmination was met with difficult obstacles.
The Black Bear Conservation Coalition was born as a result of the extinction scare of the Northern Spotted Owl in 1990. Because the owl was located primarily in the Pacific Northwest, where the government owns 80 percent of its habitat, laws were implemented protecting the species without much backlash from the people. However, the Louisiana Black Bear’s habitat is 90 percent private land ownership, a big portion of which was owned by timber companies afraid of heavy government regulation on their land. If they were to be required to obtain permits for a waiting period of up to three years to farm timber the way they’ve been thus far, many could have gone out of business.
“So one of the first great things that came out of the BBCC was we pulled everybody that had any interest in bears, wildlife management or land use in occupied bear habitat to the table,” said Executive Director of the Black Bear Conservation Coalition (BBCC) Paul Davidson.
The result of that meeting was a caveat in the laws stating that timber companies wouldn’t need to seek permits to farm their land, but that other measures were put in place to protect the bears.
“That was very much criticized by the national conservation community, but it, in fact, was what made the difference between this thing moving forward and all the sudden ending up in court. The timber industry perceived it as a good faith effort on the part of the government, which in fact it was, so they stayed at the table and they were the bigger players,” said Davidson.
“They had the deep pockets (perceived deep pockets if not really deep pockets), and so they came up with tens of thousands of dollars for us to start doing some bear research where we could really figure out what bears could tolerate and not.”
That pool would eventually grow with contributions from the congressional delegation’s support, the support of Governor Edwin Edwards, and the tax-exempt status of a nonprofit that Davidson himself secured from the IRS.
With funding secured, the Black Bear Conservation Coalition got to work in 1992 studying the bears helmed by the leadership of Drs. Michael Pelton of the University of Tennessee and Michael Vaughan of Virginia Tech.
Because 90 percent of the land that bears habitat is privately owned, the biggest tool in the BBCC’s arsenal has been their conservation incentive program.
“The incentives are designed to be in the landowner’s best interest. That was our challenge from the outset. That was, ‘How do we make it in the landowner’s’ best interest to support our efforts?’” said Davidson.
Their solution the problem was modeled off of the already existing Conservation Reserve Program. Named the Wetland Conservation Program, its main focus was to rent marginal farmland property from owners and use them to plant trees to make forests that bears could safely inhabit.
This solution not only provided a haven for the bear population but intentionally benefited business owners and taxpayers as well.
“A lot of that marginal land that was staying in agriculture was staying in agriculture because of crop insurance, deficiency payments, and all these kind of subsidies. Really, from a taxpayer’s point of view, it’s like ‘Why are we paying to subsidize a failing business?’ Which is essentially what we were doing,” said Davidson. “So, by taking marginal and non-productive farmland out of production, you’re actually saving the taxpayer money over the long run. It’s a win-win scenario.”
Once the landowners agree to the program, many of them are able to pay off debts, sell land for recreational purposes, and preserve the bear population.
Then, the land is monitored by the foot soldiers of the Wildlife and Fisheries, who implement different strategies to maximize the population such as planting particular trees, enforcing conservation laws, using federal regulation pesticides.
The program also works to educate the population on handling bear encounters. Shaping humans’ attitude towards the animal is a big part of their mission and one that they believe “will ultimately determine whether bears can survive in the modern world.”
As a result of the organization’s work, the black bear population has significantly rebounded with laws in place that have proven effective in preserving their population, while simultaneously benefiting the owners of imperfect farmland and the citizens of the state. Over a million acres of property have been reforested as a direct result of the BBCC’s efforts, and with them continuing to fight for the thriving Louisiana Black Bear population every day, the future is bright for these majestic animals.