Louisiana black bears peer from around a tree

Louisiana Black Bears: A Conservation Success Story

Deep in the heart of Louisiana, nestled amidst towering pines and winding rivers, lives a tale of ecological triumph. You could almost call it historic. Once on the brink of extinction, a subspecies of the American black bear now roams freely in the Pelican State, representing the power of unified conservation efforts and nature’s will to persevere. And, following a state wildlife agency commision vote in support of a 2024 hunting season, 10 lucky hunters will be able to hunt Louisiana black bears for the first time since 1987.

One of 16 unique American black bear (Ursus americanus) subspecies in North America, Louisiana black bears were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 1992 with an estimated state population of less than 400. Human encroachment led to an overexploitation of hunting practices. The widespread deforestation from the manufacturing of wood products and the clearing of lands for agriculture resulted in sweeping habitat loss.

The Louisiana Black Bears: A Valuable Asset

Despite the bleak trajectory, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries recognized multidimensional value in launching a conservation effort to resurrect one of its most iconic game animals. An imagined resurgence of black bears presented a number of potential benefits, but also fulfilled what the state felt was a duty to its wildlife. The Louisiana Black Bear was listed on the endangered species act (ESA) which put into motion an opportunity to restore this iconic species.

The ESA is a much maligned act that has shown to very rarely do what its intent is, which is the recovery of species to a point where wise use can be placed on the population. The ESA in Louisiana for Black Bears has functioned exactly how it was supposed to, deeming a population endangered and subsequently installing a recovery plan. It named two viable populations—one in the Tensas River Basin and one in the Atchafalaya River Basin—and facilitated connectivity between them for genetic transfer.

In the face of development and fragmentation, the LDWF managed to increase bear habitat by more than 430 percent, thanks largely to incentive-based government programs with private landowners. 

By 2016, Louisiana black bears were no longer listed under the ESA. This statement cannot be underemphasized. An absolutely historic decision. Arguably the first time a large mammal, a big game animal, that was once hunted, is now deemed recovered. Twice since, a coalition of groups has challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recognition of the subspecies recovery status. In January, however, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana further confirmed the sustainability of Louisiana black bears when it dismissed a challenge that had been pending since 2019, upholding the delisting.

“We are pleased with the court’s ruling in favor of Safari Club International, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries,” said Richard Kennedy, President of SCI’s Acadiana Chapter and an attorney involved in the case. “The science supports the delisting and the court’s confirmation that the Louisiana black bear population has recovered and is healthy and sustainable. We look forward to the LDWF opening a hunting season to appropriately manage this increasing bear population.” 

With the ESA decision and the court ruling, one thing was championed—the science. The science showed a demonstrable change. The science showed a population recovered. The science showed that a small wise use of that population would not detrimentally harm its recovery.

Hunting Louisiana Black Bears

Louisiana black bears stare into a camera lens
Photo by Levi Madden

As we assess the state of Louisiana black bears in 2024, we see healthy, abundant populations flourishing in the range of 1,200-1,500. The honeymoon phase of recovery is now behind us, however, meaning bruins are entering the next value phase of survival: sustainable consumptive use. The opportunity for residents to harvest black bears holds tremendous value, and a growing population means an increase in conflicts between bears and humans. We’ve reached the chapter where effective hunting practices can fund and maintain ecological balance while controlling bears’ engagement with humans. 

The upcoming hunting season will be extremely conservative, as the state will only issue 10 tags via lottery for a single hunting unit—BMA 4. The harvesting of cubs and females is prohibited. Resident hunters only.

We’ve seen this success story play out in other states that have instituted similar plans. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, bear hunting application and permit fees have generated over $65,000 each year with a comparable number of tags issued. Louisiana’s inaugural bear hunting season has the potential to see similar returns.

Non-governmental organizations and anti-hunters will raise objections, claiming hunting advocates built the population back up only to wipe it out for sport. Yet, the data is there, validating the science and effort put forth to revitalize a declining species. Male-to-female ratios, population modeling, and hard-earned results have black bears back on the Louisiana map.The Pelican State is witnessing conservation at its finest. The data is irrefutable. And, of course, Louisiana black bear hunting is finally back. An absolutely historic return.