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Mississippi

Louisiana Black Bear

Smaller than other black bears, this species relies on bottomland hardwood forests for survival.

Ecological Significance, History and Range

The Louisiana black bear is one of 16 recognized subspecies of the American black bear, which was formerly widespread in North America, from Alaska to Mexico.

Once common in the Lower Mississippi River Valley, Louisiana black bears, which have longer and narrower skulls than other black bears, have been reduced to an estimated population of less than 1,200. They were federally listed as a threatened species in 1992.

The Louisiana black bear lives primarily in relatively large, contiguous areas of bottomland hardwood habitat. Today they are found most abundantly in Louisiana, but they also inhabit eastern Texas and southern Mississippi. Black bears in Arkansas are genetically similar, but researchers have not identified them as Louisiana black bears.

Once almost completely extirpated in Mississippi, researchers estimate that approximately 120 Louisiana black bears now live in the state, where they were classified as state endangered in 1984. 

Historic references indicate that black bear populations were widespread and common in the bottomland hardwoods of the Mississippi River and several of its major tributaries before the arrival of European settlers in the early 1800s. Bears were important to Native Americans, explorers and settlers as a source of food, fur and oil.

Threats

While unrestricted and illegal harvests were among the reasons for the decline of the Louisiana black bear, the most significant factor limiting their full recovery today is the lack of suitable habitat. Delta forests once blanketed 24 million acres – the largest expanse of forested wetlands in North America.

Over the past 200 years, most of these forests were cleared, and with their disappearance, black bear populations plummeted. Today only some 4.4 million forested acres remain in the Lower Mississippi River Valley, mostly in small, degraded patches.

Characteristics

Louisiana black bears...

  • can weigh as much as 600 pounds, but 200 to 400 pounds is typical for males and 120 to 200 pounds is typical for females;
  • typically begin having cubs at the age of 3 to 5 years;
  • usually mate in the summer and give birth in January or February to two cubs, but as many as five;
  • are “opportunistic,” largely herbivorous omnivores that feed on a wide variety of foods;
  • are not true hibernators – they go through a winter dormancy in which they den for periods of time and their normal body metabolism slows;
  • do not eat, drink, urinate, or defecate during the denning sleep – waste products are recycled as a result of unique metabolic and physiological processes;
  • are most active from dusk through dawn;
  • are estimated to have home ranges from 18,000 acres (typical for females) to 40,000 acres (typical for males).

Note: Much of the information above was provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks.

What The Nature Conservancy Is Doing 

Working with the Mississippi Bear Education and Restoration group, the Conservancy helped secure significant government funding to restore 7,950 acres of privately owned bottomland hardwood forests and forested wetlands – critical habitat for the Louisiana black bear, as well as game species and migratory songbirds.

Managed by the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) Program and administered through the USDA Farm Service Agency, the program, which started in 2008, provides substantial financial incentives to landowners who participate in forest and wetland restoration efforts.

Designed to help black bear populations rebound, the program will ensure a protected travel corridor with year-round food sources for many species throughout the Delta, connecting habitat in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.

The Conservancy has a long history of working with public and private partners to protect biologically diverse areas throughout the Mississippi Delta, which presents the most viable habitat for the recovery of Louisiana black bear populations.

Critical Delta sites the Conservancy has had a hand in protecting include the Delta National Forest, Morgan Brake National Wildlife Refuge and Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. In 1990, the Conservancy also helped establish the Dahomey National Wildlife Refuge by transferring 9,269 acres to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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