When President Theodore Roosevelt hunted in the Mississippi Delta in 1902, its abundant black bear population bolstered his legend and gave birth to the iconic Teddy bear toy. But in the following decades, the furry omnivores nearly vanished from the Magnolia State’s landscape.
By 1932, when the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks was founded, there were less than 12 bears in the entire state, foreshadowing a species-wide population decline that landed black bears on the federal list of threatened and endangered wildlife until March 2016.
While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service no longer considers the black bear threatened on a national level, the two subspecies that call Mississippi home are considered endangered in the state. That’s why Mississippi State University researchers have partnered with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks to evaluate the state’s black bears.
Jerrold Belant, a professor with the MSU Forest and Wildlife Research Center and director of its Carnivore Ecology Laboratory, leads the black bear research in Mississippi.In addition, his team partners with the Missouri Department of Conservation on similar work in the Show Me State.
“Black bears used to occur throughout the Southeastern United States but due to large-scale land conversion and unregulated harvest, black bear populations declined dramatically throughout the region,” Belant said.
“Range-wide, they are doing well,” he continued. “For instance, in New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the country, the black bear population is thriving and that state now has a limited harvest. In the Southeast, through better habitat management and effective laws, black bears are making a comeback. In Mississippi and Missouri, we are observing species recolonization.”
Although black bears were the subject of a number of FWRC studies throughout the 1990s, when the current research began in Mississippi in 2008 and Missouri in 2010, there was still a great deal unknown about the expanding bear populations in each state.
“As states with low numbers of black bears, there was very little information about species ecology and distribution,” Belant said. “Both states had the foresight to try to obtain that knowledge in order to maintain their full complement of native wildlife.”
Mississippi is part of the historic range of both the Louisiana and American subspecies of black bear. The former is found in the southern two-thirds of the state, while the latter has traditionally called the northern region home. Missouri is home to the American black bear.
Belant said the research’s objective is to understand black bear recolonization to aid species management in each state. The team focuses on female bears to obtain that baseline data.
“Females are important to study, particularly in small, recolonizing populations, as they are fundamental to reproduction and the survival of the young,” Belant said. “We now understand the reproductive potential of bears in each state and how successfully their young are being recruited into the populations.”
The researchers conduct annual den checks in late winter and early spring. Thus far, they’ve studied bears in three areas with known reproduction in Mississippi: Bolivar County, Wilkinson County, and Sharkey, Issaquena and Warren counties—the location of Roosevelt’s famous hunt.
Since the research began, Belant’s team has outfitted 50 black bears with GPS collars, which help the researchers understand home-range size, habitat use and the effects of human activities on recolonization. The researchers are conducting similar work in Missouri and have built models that analyze attributes of bear locations, as reported by citizens, to determine the probability of a sighting anywhere in the state.
“In Missouri, sightings have increased in densely forested areas over the last 12 years,” Belant explained. “These are places we key in on for potential long-term management. We also are identifying corridors to facilitate black bear movement between these large, protected, forested tracts of land that could support small black-bear populations.”
Belant said it’s too soon in Mississippi for a population estimate, which can be challenging and expensive to obtain for low-density populations. However, since Missouri’s black bear population is larger, the researchers were able to estimate about 300 bears in the state.
Jeff Beringer, a bear biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation who works alongside Belant’s team, said the research has been instrumental in wildlife management planning.
“The research has taught us a lot about the population,” Beringer said. “For instance, we know that we have a high female survival rate but our reproductive rates are lower than expected. This information is vital to understanding the species and ultimately making management decisions.”
He added that a big part of that management is public education, which is critical when it comes to black bears.
“Black bears are new to people in Missouri,” Beringer said. “We have to make sure people understand how to live with an animal they’ve never encountered before.”
Richard Rummel, black bear program leader for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, agrees that as bears rebound, public awareness is a key component.
“We talk about the biological carrying capacity of a given piece of land but we also have to determine the social carrying capacity of an area,” Rummel said. “Our job is to educate the public in order to reduce the potential for human/bear conflicts as more bears move in and people move closer to and recreate in occupied bear habitat.”
MSU researchers will continue to evaluate the bears in both states as the population rebuilds. The research is funded by the Federal Aid and Wildlife Restoration and Safari Club International Foundation.