Magazine article American Forests

Saving Teddy's Bear

Magazine article American Forests

Saving Teddy's Bear

Article excerpt

The species that inspired the world's favorite stuffed animal is helping land managers revitalize a fragmented landscape.

When President Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear during a 1902 hunting trip in the Mississippi woods, he couldn't have known the mythology that would result.

That gesture and the media coverage it received led to worldwide demand for a snuggly stuffed animal fashioned after the Louisiana black bear (Ursus americanus luteolus). But even as "Teddy's bear" proliferated in the form of a child's toy, the species that inspired it steadily declined in the wild.

Scientists can only guess at historical numbers. But some say thousands and thousands of Louisiana black bear once roamed the rich forested bottomland of eastern Texas, Louisiana, and southern Mississippi. Before white settlement in the 1800s, Native Americans used the bear for clothing, food, and jewelry. Early colonists exported thousands of bear skins and tons of bear grease to Europe, according to historical accounts.

Nearly two centuries later, few bears remain. The hardwood forests and alluvial plains that once provided food and shelter have fallen to the ax and the plow. By 1980 more than 80 percent of the bear's traditional hardwood habitat had disappeared, according to the federal Fish and Wildlife Service's 1995 Louisiana Black Bear Recovery Plan. Many forests were cleared for farming, even though some failed to produce viable crops for landowners.

"In the past Louisiana had a huge land base of woods," says Ray Aycock, an FWS wildlife biologist in Louisiana and Mississippi. "Now it's just scattered... there are beaucoups of land here that should never have been cleared and aren't profitable for the landowner."

Today the estimated 300 to 400 surviving bears live in two discrete populations: one in the Tensas River Basin in northeastern Louisiana, the other in the Atchafalaya River Basin in the southcentral portion of the state. A handful of bears live in Iberia and St. Mary parishes (counties) on Louisiana's southwest coast, but they would have to travel more than 150 miles to meet another bear-a distance akin to walking from Philadelphia to Washington, DC.

That's a major concern for a species that depends on large, contiguous areas of forest. Black bears evolved in thick, vegetative, impenetrable habitat, says Michael Pelton, a professor of wildlife science at the University of Tennessee who has dedicated his 32-year career to studying bear species. Black bears, which range between 3 and 6 feet tall when standing on their hind legs and weigh between 150 and 300 pounds, use trees for escape, feeding, and shelter. Because of their climbing ability, black bears have been able to elude predators, usually larger members of their own species, humans, and domestic animals.

Louisiana black bears use trees for food and denning. The forest provides a cornucopia of fruits, nuts, meat, and insects, offering everything from blackberry and elderberry to palmetto and walking stick. In autumn bears turn their taste buds to high-carbohydrate meals such as oak and pecan. But as "omnivores and generalists," Pelton says, black bears will also happily chomp on agricultural crops such as corn, wheat, or soybean-and, of course, honey and bee larvae.

Male black bears have remarkable homing instincts as well and have traveled great distances, some up to 400 miles, to return to their homestead. Mother bears remain deep in the forest canopy, using logged-over slash to build dens and hiding cubs in tall trees for protection from other animals and people.

One population of Louisiana black bear lives on Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge, a 65,000-acre tract in northeast Louisiana. The nearby 19,212-acre Big Lake Wildlife Management Area provides additional habitat for roving bears. But lands north of the refuge show how forest fragmentation can imperil the survival of even a well-established bear population. …

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