A controversial rule preserving critical habitat for the Louisiana Black Bear has been promulgated today. U.S. Fish and Wildlife has designated approximately 1.2 million acres of land in 15 parishes as black bear critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act. A female black bear needs between 4,000 and 8,000 acres of home range, depending on whether the habitat is coastal or upland. Males require ranges of up to 80,000 acres. Three critical habitat units in Louisiana are located in the Tensas River and Upper and Lower Atchafalaya River basins. Parishes included within the critical habitat designation are Avoyelles, East Carroll, Catahoula, Concordia, Franklin, Iberia, Iberville, Madison, Pointe Coupee, Richland, St. Martin, St. Mary, Tensas, West Carroll, and West Feliciana.
The Louisiana Black Bear was listed as a threatened species in January 1992. Since the designation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife estimates that 600,000 acres of land have been restored or protected in the bear’s range, and that populations grew from an estimated 200 bears up to 700 bears today. The new designation nearly doubles the amount of critical habitat in Louisiana.
Groups protesting the new critical habitat include sugar cane farmers and the timber industry, both of whom feared loss of use of their land and income if the bear’s needs took precedent over their own. According to Deborah Fuller, endangered species program coordinator for the Louisiana office of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, “critical habitat doesn’t set up a refuge or an area where you can’t have any activities, but [property owners] cannot modify the habitat to such an extent that it doesn’t function for the reason it was designated.”
The rule will not affect sugar cane farmers unless they need a federal permit to convert woodland to cane fields, or are using federal funds. Then they would have to consult with Fish and Wildlife. Much of the land in St. Martin, St. Mary and Iberia is already designated wetlands by the Army Corps of Engineers, and already needs a federal permit in order to be converted to fields. “If it’s totally a private landowner action, critical habitat does not apply,” says Fuller. Normal activities of the timber industry have been exempted from the rule as well. “Timber harvest that maintains the landscape is compatible with bear habitat,” says Fuller. Many of the objections during public hearings in 2008 to the proposed rule were based on misunderstandings, says Fuller.
Land owners argued that since bear populations were increasing without the new critical habitat designation, there was no need for the proposed rule. The rule was implemented pursuant to a court order resulting from a lawsuit filed against the service by Lafayette environmentalist Harold Schoeffler and Louisiana Crawfish Producers-West.
A copy of the rule and supporting information can be found on U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Web site.