The decline in black bear abundance can primarily be attributed to human disturbance, which includes habitat loss, unregulated harvest, and lack of management.
Distribution & Status
The American black bear (Ursus americanus) was once found throughout North America from Alaska and northern Canada to northern Mexico. Presently, 16 subspecies are recognized, and those animals found in eastern Texas, most of Mississippi, and all of Louisiana are considered to belong to Ursus americanus luteolus (generally referred to as the Louisiana black bear).
The existence of viable populations of the Louisiana black bear has been jeopardized by significant habitat alteration and reduction of the bear’s range. Consequently, in 1992 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) declared the subspecies “threatened” under provisions of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Although bears north of the Louisiana/Arkansas border were excluded from the listing under the ESA, the historic range of luteolus includes the southern part of Arkansas. There is evidence that bears in southeast Arkansas in and around the White River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) may be in an area where the American and Louisiana bear subspecies come together.
The decline in black bear abundance can primarily be attributed to human disturbance, which includes habitat loss, unregulated harvest, and lack of management. Because of land drainage and clearing for agriculture, the original 24 million acres of bottomland hardwood forest in the lower Mississippi River Valley was reduced to less than 5 million acres by 1980. Examples of the extent of habitat loss include the Tensas River Basin in Louisiana and the Yazoo River Basin in Mississippi, where less that 20 percent of the original forested acreage remained in bottomland hardwoods. Although bottomland hardwood loss has been reversed since the early 1990’s, restoration of this habitat, and specifically linking remaining forests together, is still critical for bear recovery. Because black bears have a low reproductive rate, the loss of female adults is also serious concern. Unregulated harvest and illegal kill can depress population growth, especially when population numbers are low and separated from one another. While habitat loss surely contributed to declining black bear populations, mismanagement of harvest and poaching may have be a factor limiting recovery.
While data on the historical status and distribution of the Louisiana black bear in the historic range are generally lacking, there are numerous references to the animals being “widespread” and “common.” It has been reported that black bears once occupied most forested areas in the region, but reached their peak abundance in the expansive forested bottomlands of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River drainages prior to human settlement in the early 1800’s. River drainages in east Texas like Big Thicket National Preserve were also known to have an abundant black bear population. These areas are rich in legend and lore regarding the bears that roamed the forest and the men who hunted them. Bears were an important source of food, fur, and oil for early settlers. Historical accounts of bear hunts by Indians and early European explorers date to the mid-1700’s. When President Theodore Roosevelt went on his famous bear hunt that launched the ‘Teddy bear’ in the early 1900’s, the bear population had already been greatly diminished.