Linda Foster Benedict
The three little bears squealed like baby pigs as they were pulled from the bosom of their unconscious mother, curled up in a steel cage in the back of a pickup truck.
Maria Davidson, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, carefully picked up the five-week-old male Louisiana black bear cubs and displayed them to the appreciative group of people gathered at the Red River/Three Rivers Wildlife Management Area.
The group included wildlife officials and researchers celebrating the successful capture of the mama bear from her home 120 miles north in the Tensas River National Refuge earlier that morning.
Now, they had to complete the second half of this risky procedure and release her to her new human-made den deep in the woods about a mile from this site and accessible only on foot or all-terrain vehicles.
This is the second year of a five-year project to establish a fourth population center in the state for the Louisiana black bear, according to Michael Chamberlain, a wildlife researcher with the LSU AgCenter studying the relocation process.
“Relocation is their only hope for survival,” Chamberlain said, adding that the Louisiana black bear is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
This bear snared March 6, with the aid of a blow dart tranquilizer, was the fifth and only one for this year. The wildlife professionals have only a few weeks each year for the capture and release. They can do this only when there is no hunting season and the bears are in hibernation, Chamberlain said.
In March 2001, four mama bears and their nine cubs were moved to the Red River area, near the Mississippi River straight east of Alexandria. This area is in between the Tensas refuge to the north and the forested area around the Morganza spillway to the south. About 150 of the 300 bears left in the state still survive in these two areas.
“We’re trying to close the gap,” said Paul Davidson, executive director of the Louisiana Black Bear Conservation Committee, a group that includes representatives from many different agencies and institutions all dedicated to the animal’s survival in Louisiana.
If the bears set up residency in this in-between spot, then this will expand their roaming area and allow a corridor for more intermingling and inevitably more cub production.
It was a perfect day for relocation—partly sunny, temperatures in the 60s with a slight breeze and no mosquitoes.
Three men hoisted the 200-pound bear from the truck to the bed of a six-wheeled vehicle. They then hauled her over the bumpy terrain and through the thicket.
The rest of the entourage followed n a fleet of four-wheelers, including Maria Davidson holding on to the three cubs in a plastic carton. She had allowed the runt, weighing in at only 3 pounds, to nurse his mother for a short time before the jaunt.
“He needed a little extra to help him stand up to his two big bruiser brothers,” she said with a chuckle. The other cubs were 5 pounds and 3 3/4 pounds.
The new den was a wooden box with one side hinged so it could be lifted. Small openings in two sides served as windows.
“It looks like a dog house,” said Kyle Van Why, the LSU AgCenter graduate assistant who works with Chamberlain. He had built the box and decorated the exterior with paintings of black bears and leaves. This and the white laminated sign he had posted to a nearby tree were to keep the den undisturbed by people who might accidentally stumble across it.
It took six of the men in the group, looking somewhat like pallbearers, to carry the bear on a stretcher from the vehicle to the den. Two of the wildlife officials then placed her in the box, took her vital signs to make sure she was OK and nestled her three cubs beside her.
Then, they nailed the box shut, covered it with tree limbs and walked away.
“These bears have a tremendous homing instinct,” Chamberlain said.
Because of this, scientists have found that the only way to achieve relocation is to move mothers with babies. Males will head back to where they came from.
"Their maternal instinct is stronger than their homing instinct,” Paul Davidson said.
Once the relocated female awakens from hibernation, she chews and claws her way out of the wooden box to search for food for her young. If all goes as planned, she establishes a new home at Red River, and three of the females released in 2001 did that.
“That’s considered a remarkable success,” Chamberlain said.
The one that got away may have been heading back to her home in the Atchafalaya Basin, the third of three population pockets.
That bear has since established a new home about 60 miles south of Red River, and her two cubs, whom she abandoned under the stressful conditions, were successfully adopted by another bear, Chamberlain said.
Scientists keep track of the bears with radio collars. One of Van Why’s duties is to collar and monitor them. He does this with the help of staff from Wildlife and Fisheries and works from their headquarters at the Red River site.
The leather and plastic collars are white so they stand out. Van Why also puts orange metal tags in the ears to help them look different from the black feral hogs that roam the same territory, and so hunters and farmers will take notice of them.
“This is the most progressive project of its kind in the country, because everybody’s working together,” Davidson said.
As part of Van Why’s research, he has surveyed hunters, assessing their knowledge of the black bear and telling them about the project. Many of the professionals involved with the relocation give talks to groups about the Louisiana black bear.
“We couldn’t do this without the help of the farmers and hunters,” Davidson said.
The Louisiana black bear is a docile creature that poses no threat to humans. It once roamed throughout Louisiana, East Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi. The hope is that it will once again be established in the forests and wildlife areas along the Mississippi River in Louisiana and saved from extinction.
(This article appeared in the spring 2002 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)