Nikki Buskey / The Houma Courier
HOUMA, La. — Hungry black bears have been causing problems in neighboring St. Mary Parish, and the protected species may become more visible to residents of the Atchafalaya Basin as their populations grow and expand.
Terrebonne Parish sits on the edge of the Atchafalaya Basin, but bears have been a relatively rare sight in the parish.
The last major sighting of a Louisiana black bear in Terrebonne occurred in 2009, when a male bear made its home in Dularge for a few months, raiding garbage cans and evading capture by Wildlife and Fisheries agents, said Valerie Robinson, director of the parish's animal shelter and animal control efforts.
Louisiana black bears are on the U.S. Endangered Species List. Through the work of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, they have been steadily fighting their way back to a larger population.
That includes bears in St. Mary where they emerged early in March and began alarming residents as they foraged in neighborhoods and chased pets.
But Maria Davidson, large carnivore program manager with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said despite a shared border, Terrebonne residents may not see an increase in bear visits as the population grows and their range expands.
The bears prefer wooded areas that are restricted to Terrebonne's northern and western borders, Davidson said.
“Most of the parish is swamp and marsh, not good bear habitat,” she said.
The Louisiana black bear is one of 16 recognized subspecies of the American black bear.
The Louisiana black bear once lived throughout Louisiana, eastern Texas, southern Arkansas and southern Mississippi. But by the early 1900s, black bear populations were decimated by excessive harvest and habitat loss through deforestation.
Scientists previously estimated that fewer than 300 Louisiana black bears were left in Louisiana.
The state has been working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore and stabilize Louisiana's black bear population. They do that by protecting bears from hunters and human impact, restoring their habitat and educating the public about them, Davidson said. They're also following a recovery plan that outlines what criteria needs to be met before Louisiana black bears can be taken off the Endangered Species List.
Part of that is documenting the population of bears through extensive data collection. That effort should be completed this year.
Populations have been expanding since then. Today, there are three main subpopulations living in the Atchafalaya Basin, the Tensas River basin and the Pointe Coupee area. Davidson said they've documented about 300 bears living in the Tensas River basin and 56 in the Pointe Coupee region.
They're still working on the population estimate for the coastal Atchafalaya Basin, but she estimates it will be around 100 bears.
If the counts find a suitable number of bears, the Louisiana black bear could be up for removal from the Endangered Species List in the very near future, Davidson said. But more steps will be needed to protect their future.
With so few bears spread across an isolated region, one of the major criteria for ensuring their long-term viability is to establish a wooded corridor between their populations. That will help the remaining population to remain healthy by allowing for genetic exchange between these bear groups.
The black bear's growing populations sometimes put them at odds with humans, Davidson said.
The bears are mostly herbivores and eat what's convenient. They are attracted to garbage cans, outdoor pet food and bird feeders.
“They are shy and reserved, but they're extremely opportunistic and have an incredible nose,” she said. “They're not interested in hanging out in neighborhoods, but they will come if there's food.”
Davidson said the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is trying to teach residents to better bear proof their homes by keeping pet food inside and keeping garbage indoors or in garages until trash pickup. In St. Mary Parish, residents can obtain bear-proof garbage cans to further this effort.
Even if you like the black bears and think it's fun to have them come by your home, Davidson said you're only endangering the animals in the long term.
Bears who grow to depend on human food sources will place themselves at greater risk because they're crossing more roads and encountering more humans. Some residents may not enjoy nighttime visits from bears as much and could take matters into their own hands by shooting or killing a bear.
Because Louisiana black bears are an endangered species, killing them is a violation of state and federal laws. Violators are subject to penalties of up to $25,000 fines and six months in jail. In addition, a restitution fine of $10,000 may be imposed.
“A bear that's seeking out human food sources is a bear that has a shorter life span,” she said.
Davidson said it's possible to live harmoniously with this unique Louisiana species as bears recover from the brink of extinction, but it requires residents to be respectful of them.
To report problems with bears, call 1-800-442-2511.