Suit: Renewed federal protection needed for Louisiana black bears
NEW ORLEANS — The real-life bears that inspired toy teddy bears should get renewed federal protection, according to a lawsuit recently brought against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Environmental groups, including Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and others filed the lawsuit June 28 in Washington. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acted prematurely, “based on flawed assumptions and shoddy science,” when it took Louisiana black bears off the “threatened” list in 2016, according to a PEER news release.
Jeffrey Fleming, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, would not comment on the lawsuit’s specific allegations.
However, he did say, “We’re very comfortable with the actions we took 2-1/2 years ago, given that recovery targets were met for the Louisiana black bear.”
Louisiana black bears are the largest and rarest of 16 black bear subspecies. An estimated 80,000 once ranged from eastern Texas and southern Arkansas, across Louisiana and through most of Mississippi.
The first “Teddy’s bears ” were created more than a century ago after President Teddy Roosevelt refused to shoot a Louisiana black bear that had been trapped and tied to a tree in Mississippi.
Harold Schoeffler, a plaintiff in the case, filed the citizen’s lawsuit that succeeded in getting the bears listed as threatened in 1992. A 1987 survey showed 300 bears existed in the wild, he said.
A 2015 survey indicated there might be 700 today. “So we hardly think that’s a spectacular success,” Schoeffler said. “Look at the pelican. We had to get to 40,000 before we de-listed the pelican.”
Even 700 bears for today’s population is an overestimate, because it counts a different subspecies of black bears brought from Minnesota in the 1960s for sport hunting, the lawsuit contends. It said that because state and federal biologists created a bridge population between that group in the northern Atchafalaya Basin and one in northeast Louisiana, native and “alien” bears have hybridized, creating yet another threat to the Louisiana subspecies.
“They’re actually making things worse rather than achieving a recovery of this species,” said Paula Dinerstein, senior counsel for PEER. The nonprofit’s purpose, according to its website, is to ensure enforcement of laws to protect endangered and protected species.
The Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association-West and its president, Jody Meche, joined the suit because removing the bear’s protection hurts its interests in ecotourism and wetlands protection, according to the lawsuit.
“As more development is authorized in areas previously designated as critical habitat, the ability of crawfishermen to make a living in areas with exacerbated sedimentation, impaired water quality, and disruption of crawfish and other wildlife habitat is severely diminished,” it said.