Louisiana black bears were in trouble. In the alluvial plain along the Mississippi River, highly fertile soil led to the historic conversion of bottomland hardwoods to cultivated cropland during the 1960s and 1970s when soybean prices reached record highs. By 1992, the bear had lost 80 percent of its habitat, and biologists estimated fewer than 200 remained.
But landowners who voluntarily restored wetland habitat on private lands reversed the bear’s downward trend, paving the way for its recovery.
May marks American Wetlands Month, a time to celebrate the importance of wetland ecosystems, including the bottomland hardwood forests that the Louisiana black bear needs.
Targeting Priority Areas for Conservation
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) targeted the restoration of bottomland hardwoods where they can most benefit the species, netting the best return on investment. To do so, NRCS and its partners created priority areas for conservation for Louisiana black bears and then focused their efforts on restoring and protecting more than 250,000 acres of black bear habitat through the former Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP).
By strategically restoring and placing these difficult-to-farm lands into conservation easements, Louisiana landowners maintain a steady source of income while improving habitat for black bears and other wildlife. In total, NRCS and its partners helped establish and protect more than 800,000 acres of habitat in the region.
The Road to Recovery
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the Louisiana black bear on the Federal Lists of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in 1992. Earlier this year, because of the bear’s stable population, the agency was able to delist the bear.
The Louisiana black bear is one of 16 subspecies of American black bears, and the reason behind the teddy bear. After a 1902 hunting trip to Mississippi, President Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot one that had been trapped and tied to a tree by members of his hunting party. The episode was featured in an editorial cartoon in The Washington Post, sparking an idea from a Brooklyn candy-store owner to create the “Teddy” bear.
Restoring Wetlands Helps Many Species
Private landowners are playing a pivotal role in helping wildlife across the country. For example, by restoring wetlands in the Willamette River basin, the Oregon chub became the first fish in American history to be removed from the endangered species list because of recovery. And restored wetlands on private wetlands now provide crucial “rest stops” for whooping cranes and other migratory birds headed south for the winter.
The Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) partnership is the overarching concept of how NRCS works with partners and private landowners to voluntarily conserve working landscapes using target species as barometers for success.