by Paul Davidson
Background: For the purpose of some of my history, I have worked on the restoration effort for the Louisiana black bear for 24 years as Executive Director of the Black Bear Conservation Coalition (BBCC). During that time I, my staff, Board and members, have spent over $4 million, mostly private funds, on restoration objectives. We have restored approximately 7,500 acres of private land back to bottomland hardwood habitat, given educational programs to well over 50,000 children and adults at summer camps, civic group meetings, etc., and handled human/bear conflicts for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries for 16 yrs. We wrote a Louisiana Black Bear Restoration Plan, a plan used as the blueprint for the USFWS Recovery Plan for the Louisiana Black Bear. We wrote and published 4 editions of the Black Bear Management Handbook, written for landowners with management recommendations for different habitat types in the region. We printed newsletters and other educational materials to help educate the public about bears and how to coexist with these remarkable animals. We initiated two bear festivals, one in Louisiana and one in Mississippi, to show rural communities that bears can be an asset and economic driver in the region. Without going into any more detail, it should be obvious that “I have a dog in this hunt”. For over two decades, the BBCC supported both the US Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF), taking up the slack when agency personnel couldn’t do what we all thought necessary to move bear restoration forward. We got into the nuisance bear business because the USFWS “didn’t have the staff” and because the state agency was mad that the USFWS had listed the bear, so wouldn’t do the job. Since before the bear was listed, the BBCC has always done what was best for the bear, circumventing the politics and personal and other agendas.
It has been disheartening to say the least to see the Service and the LDWF basically “go behind closed doors” for the past 3 yrs. in preparing the delisting proposal and its Post De-listing Monitoring Plan. After all we have done to support both agencies for over two decades, we were completely shut out of the process. As a result, politics has prevailed, integrity has been cast aside, and the best scientific information has been edited to only show that which supports their short-term political agenda. LDWF has put a lot of energy into their PR campaign (more appropriately a BS campaign) to promote that the bear is recovered. They have done such a good job that very few people showed up for the public meetings on the delisting proposal. I have had news media and others with an interest in bears tell me they didn’t know about the meetings. So obviously, both the Service and LDWF did a very poor job in advertising the public meetings.
The Political Agenda: It has not been a secret that the Secretary of LDWF has had as his top priority to delist the bear and have a bear hunt during his tenure at the agency. He was touting this agenda several years before there was any data to show that the bear population might be viable. He has stated how he has communicated with U.S. Senator David Vitter’s office to gain their support for his agenda as well as promoting this with the past 3 Directors of the Service. I have had Service personnel tell me that it was “all politics” and others tell me that they were
under a lot of pressure to delist the bear. This process represents everything that American citizens hate about the government and about politics! After over two decades of an effort that was totally transparent, inclusive, and collaborative, the agencies have excluded all of those who have spent thousands of hours working together to achieve a healthy bear population and gone off by themselves to “fast track” the delisting process for a short-term political agenda. This behavior is nothing short of SHAMEFUL! For years we had doctors, lawyers, business leaders and others just interested in bears take valuable time from their jobs to participate in BBCC meetings because the agency personnel made it clear that they would not attend weekend meetings. We made it a priority to keep agency personnel at the table, only to be betrayed by them and the politics of agency leaders.
Issues of concern: In the original listing document and in the Recovery Plan, habitat loss was cited as the primary cause of the bear’s decline. “Human induced mortality” was also noted as a factor that was “currently limiting recovery”. As a result, the delisting criteria includes : Establishment of immigration and emigration corridors between the two subpopulations, and, Protection of the habitat and interconnecting corridors that support each of the two viable subpopulations used as justification for delisting.
Since there is no clear definition of a corridor, one has to question whether or not those objectives have been met. The maps that supposedly show these corridors certainly show a lot more yellow (open land) than green (forested land). Without question, a lot of habitat has been restored, primarily through USDA Farm Bill programs. But I don’t see anything that resembles what I would consider a “corridor”.
I find the issue of human-induced mortality more of a threat and cause of concern. Section 3.2 of the USFWS Recovery Plan for the Louisiana Black Bear states, “Coordinate record keeping of all reported and investigated bear deaths.” I have asked repeatedly for those data. I have been told that it doesn’t exist and also told that they (the agencies) don’t have to make that information public. So I will ask, how is it that you ask for public comment on the delisting proposal, but don’t give the public the information it needs to make credible comments?
In Section B.1.b in the 1994 BBCC Restoration Plan for the Louisiana black bear, it states, “Though relatively few in number, known kills from tagged and radio-collared bears suggest that annual mortality from illegal take could be as high as 12 %. In Jesse Troxler’s 2013 thesis from his work in the coastal population, he states that 10% of those bears are killed each year in vehicle collisions. In the LDWF’s Louisiana Black Bear Management Plan, page 16, the statement is made, “This represents an average of approximately 13 bears annually that have succumbed to anthropogenic causes of mortality since 1992.” The same numbers were used by the Service in their presentation at the public hearings on the delisting proposal. Where did these numbers come from? This is very misleading. In looking over minutes from various meetings, I found in the April 19, 2012 Minutes of the Endangered Species Committee of the Louisiana Forestry Commission, LDWF Wildlife Division Chief Kenny Ribbeck stated that there were 27 bears known to be killed by human related causes in 2010 and 37 killed in 2011. It is important to have such numbers to be able to document trends in mortality. Mr. Ribbeck also stated that 4 of the deaths in 2010 were illegal kills and 5 were illegal kills in 2011. Yet documents obtained from the LDWF Enforcement Division show no violations related to bear deaths in 2010 or 2011. So are we to assume that LDWF’s information is credible? I think it is safe to assume that all illegal kills are not reported or documented. Likely, only a small fraction of actual illegal kill is documented.
Mr. Ribbeck also stated that there was 1 documented kill by hog snare in 2010 and 2 in 2011. As a result, both Service and LDWF personnel asked that the BBCC write a letter to the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission supporting new regulations to try to minimize bear deaths by snares in 15 parishes in Louisiana known as Occupied Habitat. The BBCC did that and attended the April 5, 2012 Commission meeting where it was discussed. At that meeting, Mr. Jeff Weller, Supervisor of the Ecological Services Office of the Service in Louisiana, stated that human caused mortality was a significant issue and could delay the delisting of the bear. The Commission failed to put the regulations in place, but evidently the Service’s stand on human caused mortality was trumped by the politics to promote and “fast track” the delisting process.
Relocation of Nuisance Bears out of the home range: There are several decades of data that show that relocating nuisance bears out of their home range is a bad practice. A remarkable homing instinct causes the relocated bear to try to get home, causing it to cross roads and areas inhabited by people. As a result, fewer than 50% of relocated bears survive being moved out of their home range. In a recent article posted by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department, it stated the 90% of the bears relocated out of the Durango, CO, community were dead within 3 weeks of being moved.
In 1992-93 we moved several bears from St. Mary and Iberia Parishes to the Sherburne WMA in Pointe Coupee Parish. All of those bears generated nuisance problems at or near Sherburne, so most were placed in zoos and 1 was euthanized. Our team, made up of LSU researchers, USDA Wildlife Services, and the BBCC Director, figured out that we needed to do something different. We researched aversive conditioning and talked to other agencies or organizations dealing with bears. In spite of that, a female bear was moved from Cypremort Point in St. Mary Parish to the Sherburne WMA in August of 1994. The young female ended up being pregnant and although she created problems when first released, she stayed in the area and had a cub in February of 1995. A LSU grad student (Mike Sealy) and LDWF Management Area Biologist John Sturgis made a den visit in February when the cub was very small. The female abandoned the den and the cub was lost. The female bred again that summer and had two cubs the following February. There were reports of these bears for the next couple of years. That female was the only successful relocation.
No other bears were relocated until the fall of 1998. The USFWS relocated an adult female and two cubs from the Four Corners community in Iberia Parish to Hwy. 317 in St. Mary Parish. Those bears immediately went from house to house along the road so Service personnel told USDA and BBCC to euthanize them. We were able to capture the mother and male cub and dispatched them according to USFWS orders. The female cub escaped unharmed. We were not told initially, but found out later that those bear’s home range was on and around Week’s Island. If they had been taken and released into their home range, they likely would have survived.
No other nuisance bears were relocated from 1999 to 2007. In the summer of 2007 LDWF and the Service wanted to try to relocate two female bears from Patterson, in St. Mary Parish, to the Sherburne WMA. We agreed to give it a try. Those bears were released on the WMA. One made her way back to St. Mary Parish within a couple of weeks. The other roamed over much of southeast Louisiana for several months before ending up in south Baton Rouge. Dave Telesco, BBCC Biologist, and Emile LeBlanc, LDWF Biologist, chased the bear around for most of a day. She was killed by a car on the Airline Hwy. near the State Fairgrounds 3 days later.
All this history is just to show that relocating bears out of their home range does not work, not in Louisiana, not anywhere where there are only limited options for relocation sites. Decades of data confirm this. Yet in 2009, LDWF decided to abandon the Conflict Management Team that for years had been successfully working together to address human/bear conflicts, and started moving nuisance bears out of their home range. I personally went to see LDWF Assistant Secretary Jimmy Anthony to express my concerns, telling him that it wouldn’t work. He dismissed my concerns and said they would be relocating nuisance bears. They also started to kill problem bears. From 2009 to 2014, 12 bears were euthanized by agency personnel. I have no idea how many bears were relocated, but from what I was hearing from agency personnel, it was quite a few. Several were moved to Avery Island, and identified by their orange ear tags, were seen around homes and one actually entered two homes. Thankfully, the good folks that live of Avery Island are very tolerant of bears.
Too often I would hear from agency biologists that this bear or that bear killed by a vehicle or police officer was one that had been relocated from St. Mary Parish. If ever we are able to see the mortality database that either doesn’t exist or is not available to the public, it will show a substantial increase in human caused mortality after 2008, largely because of the agency’s relocation policy. I doubt seriously that LDWF kept any sort of records to track the mortality of relocated bears, but it would be helpful to see those data. Those data certainly would add to the existing data related to the issue of relocation of nuisance bears. To add insult to injury, LDWF, in another lapse in judgement, served Louisiana black bear meat, taken from a nuisance bear they had killed, at its National Hunting and Fishing Day event in Baton Rouge. In my opinion, that crosses the line from just making poor management decisions to being arrogant and above the law. But the Service let them get away with it, so I guess that makes it all right. I find it unconscionable to serve a federally listed species at a public event, and promote it.
When I look at the list of violations obtained from LDWF Enforcement Division between 2004 and 2014, it only lists 7 violations related to black bears. I have been around long enough and hear enough to know that there are a lot more illegally killed bears than that. I have personally hand delivered a picture of a dead bear that was an attachment to an email where the original sender stated, “A friend of mine killed this near the Louisiana/Mississippi line last weekend. That email was sent to a LDWF employee who then forwarded it to others. One forwarded it to me. I assumed that the LDWF employee would have contacted the Enforcement Division, but when I asked them, they knew nothing about it. So I printed the email and photo of the dead bear and gave it to Enforcement. I checked on the status several times, but after about a month, I was told that they “couldn’t get anybody to talk” so they couldn’t make a case.
The BBCC has always done what we thought was in the best interest of bears and restoring them to viability throughout the region. So activities that kill bears has never been something supported by the BBCC, although in trying to be a supportive partner, not much was said. But at some point enough is enough. We are talking about a federally listed species! Private landowners, timber companies and others are expected to jump through hoops to satisfy the Service’s rule and regulations, but the state wildlife agency does whatever they want, regardless of how many bears die. LDWF bear management is responsible for the deaths of far too many bears to ignore. And now the Service wants to turn all bear management over to this agency. But then the Service doesn’t follow their own rules. The ESA requires a “5 Year Review” every 5 years after a species is listed to track progress. The first 5 year review for the Louisiana black bear came out 22 yrs. after listing. Too bad they didn’t see any benefit in “fast tracking” a 5 year review. Even then the document had misinformation that was appalling to anyone who is knowledgeable about the Louisiana black bear.
I cannot support a proposal that is so politically motivated. I was told by people high up in the hierarchy at LDWF several years ago that the Service folks had assured them they could get the bear delisted by 2015. So all this has been in the works long before there was any science supporting the viability of the Louisiana black bear. I would suggest that the Service abandon this ridiculous “fast track” effort to delist the bear and convene a diverse group to look at ALL the information, and work together to come up with a delisting proposal that is transparent and recognizes the needs of the bear first. Politicians come and go, but the integrity of the Endangered Species Act should be untainted by the politics that seem to prevail with this species. I expect that with the current Congress that an attempt to weaken or scrap the ESA is coming. If the Act is that subject to the politics of the time, perhaps it is not worth saving.
I have a long history in conservation, on issues local and nationally, and prior to this, have never publicly criticized anyone or another organization or agency. But I have had it with the corrupt politics and policies of the current administration within the Service and LDWF. People have lost their jobs for not jumping through the hoops for the current administration at LDWF. In my 66 yrs. I have never experienced the sort of undermining, back stabbing behavior that these men are getting away with. To allow them to have their way after the way they have behaved, is reprehensible. My faith and confidence in government will never be the same.
Both agencies have very reputable and competent biologists, dedicated to excellent conservation and management of our natural resources. I have had numerous conversations with staff with both the Service and LDWF and I can tell you that most find this proposal and everything associated with it troubling at the very least. But then the rank and file employees still have their integrity. The politics undermines all those dedicated professionals and has them counting the days until they can retire. It is a sad state we are in and is no wonder this country is in such pitiful shape. It would be nice to see some integrity in the mix again. It sure was fun and productive when we all worked together.
Bold Visions Conservation