The goal of repatriation is to establish a viable population of bears that would help close the gap between isolated bear populations.
Moving Bears to Unoccupied Habitats
The Louisiana black bear exists mostly in small, isolated populations living in fragmented patches of bottomland hardwood forest. As a wildlife population grows, ideally it would expand into new areas of suitable habitat. Unfortunately, the bear populations and suitable habitats in the region are separated far enough from each other that this natural expansion becomes difficult. The ability of male black bears to range far and wide is well known, however, females generally remain in the same small area throughout their lives. While young male bears disperse from their mother, young females tend to set up their home range near their mother. This behavior, coupled with the fragmented habitat, have prompted bear managers to look seriously at moving bears from existing populations to suitable habitat where bears are rare or absent (called repatriation). The goal of repatriation is to establish a viable population of bears that would help close the gap between isolated bear populations.
Moving bears from one area to another is no easy task, and getting them to stay generally where you put them is even more difficult. Bears have a remarkable homing instinct and quite often show extensive post release movements, but researchers now believe they have developed a method that will work.
Soft Release Technique Shown to be Successful
Biologists with the Pennsylvania Game Commission developed a new “soft release” translocation technique, where adult females with newborn cubs from an existing population are moved from their winter dens to artificial dens at a release site. Because cubs cannot travel far distances when they emerge from dens, the mothers are likely to stay in these new areas. Once females can be established in an area, males show up on their own in their search for mates and set up their own home ranges.
Researchers at the University of Tennessee compared the “winter den release” method with another soft release method, which involves capturing bears and holding them in pens to acclimate them for 2 weeks in the new release area. Researchers found winter den release was a much more effective technique. Bears were monitored after den emergence, and the winter den release bears had a higher survival rate and stayed closer to the release sites than with the other method. After these translocation successes, bear biologists in Louisiana and Arkansas began looking at the repatriation possibilities in the lower Mississippi Valley. In Arkansas, bears are being moved from White River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) to Felsenthal NWR. In Louisiana, bears are moved from Tensas River NWR and private lands to Lake Ophelia NWR and Red River Wildlife Management Area.
Louisiana Black Bear Repatriation Project
The multi-agency Louisiana Black Bear Reintroduction Program in east-central Louisiana wrapped up its ninth and final year in 2009. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Black Bear Conservation Coalition, Louisiana State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services were involved with this program.
Since 2001, the project moved 48 adult female black bears with 104 cubs from the dense black bear population in the Tensas River Basin to the now suitable habitat called the Red River Complex totaling 179,604 acres that includes Grassy Lake, Red River, Three Rivers and Spring Bayou wildlife management areas and Lake Ophelia National Wildlife Refuge.
The reintroduction project was put in place to help rebuild the historic population of black bears in Central Louisiana. The BBRP was also used to establish immigration and emigration corridors between the Tensas River Basin and the Red River Complex.