Containing one of the largest remaining bottomland forests in the Mississippi River alluvial plain, the lower Yazoo River basin of the Mississippi Delta includes more than 1.1 million acres of important habitat for black bears and many songbird species, as well as species of particular concern such as the alligator snapping turtle, pallid sturgeon, interior least tern and rock pocketbook mussel.
In October, 2010, the Entergy Charitable Foundation announced a $250,000 grant to The Nature Conservancy to reforest 900 acres of land in the Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge. (Check out additional information here.) The trees, while providing habitat for native and game species, will also help improve water quality downstream--including in the Mississippi River--by reducing soil erosion and the influx of pollutants into waterways, and also help regulate climate by storing carbon.
Efforts to improve bear habitat are ongoing. On January 19, 2008, the state of Mississippi was granted sufficient funding to restore 7,950 acres of critical black bear habitat in its portion of the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley through the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) program administered by the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA). The SAFE program allowed submission of funding requests that would benefit high priority wildlife species through the use of targeted restoration of vital habitat.
The funding was awarded in response to a proposal spearheaded by The Nature Conservancy in Mississippi (TNC) and the Bear Education and Restoration Group of Mississippi (BEaR). The SAFE program allowed participating stakeholders to devise a restoration strategy that would specifically provide future habitat for the federally threatened Louisiana black bear (Ursus americanus luteolus) and the state endangered American black bear (Ursus americanus americanus) on eligible agricultural lands.
While functioning as a new Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) practice, the SAFE program practices have been fashioned to specifically provide the habitat needs of black bears. A majority of the enrolled acreage will be dedicated to restoring native bottomland hardwood forests and forested wetlands in portions of the Mississippi Alluvial Valley that have been identified as important zones for black bear recovery. Practices will create favorable habitat conditions by incorporating a diverse mix of species in the reforestation to provide year-round food sources, creating escape cover and elevated den cavities, providing semi-permanent wetland communities, and contributing to larger-scale formation of habitat and travel corridors for black bear dispersal.
Black Bears are Returning to Mississippi
In the past several years, black bear populations have slowly begun building in the western part of Mississippi as bears have migrated across the Mississippi River from Arkansas and Louisiana, where population densities are higher. There are several black bears in the state that have been fitted with tracking collars by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (MDWFP) to monitor bear movement and habitat use. Recently, black bears in the state have been successful at reproducing and rearing cubs, showing signs that Mississippi’s once abundant black bear population is rebounding well.
“Black bears were once plentiful throughout Mississippi. One of the primary reasons for their decline was the loss of habitat seen in Mississippi over the last 150 years. Today, there is no doubt that our state’s bear population is increasing. The habitat provided by programs such as SAFE will help to ensure that Mississippi bears can continue their recolonization of our state’s natural lands,” said Brad Young, the Black Bear Program Leader for MDWFP.
Restoring Black Bear Habitat Benefits Everyone
The SAFE program will not only benefit black bears in the state. "Habitat restoration for bears means habitat restoration for other wildlife, including game species. Bears are like an umbrella species, and if an area can support bears, it is healthy enough to support all of Mississippi’s native wildlife,” said Bo Sloan, Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge Manager and Vice President of BEaR. “The SAFE program will provide quality habitat for bears on private land while providing substantial financial incentives to private landowners. It really is a win-win situation, and an excellent opportunity to teach people what black bear restoration is all about.”
Financial Incentives for Landowners
Financial incentives available to landowners enrolling in SAFE include annual rental payments on enrolled acreage, a $100 per acre sign-up incentive paid upon enrollment, 50% of establishment costs for reforestation and wetland construction, along with additional practice incentive payments equal to 40% of eligible installation costs. Landowners are required to sign a 10-15 year contract for all lands enrolled in SAFE.
Sign-up for Mississippi’s Black Bear SAFE Program began on June 23, 2008 and will continue until the state’s allotment has been filled. For more information about black bear restoration efforts in Mississippi, please visit BEaR’s website at www.msbear.org.