Is the black bear problem the elephant in the room?

By John K. Flores

If you consider the geographic area between Berwick and the Calumet Spillway — river to spillway, if you will — consider its width south of the tracks below U.S. 90 and above the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, it’s not a lot of land. Moreover, in terms of carrying capacity where terrestrials such as deer, raccoons, rabbits, squirrels and yes, bears, are concerned, it’s pretty marginal habitat.

For example, take deer. Sure, someone will shoot a 146 Class wall-hanger buck every now and then in the local region, such as the one I scored for a local hunter several years ago. But, as a rule, there just aren’t the food resources to produce Boone and Crocket bucks for it to be the norm.

The same is true for the Louisiana black bear in St. Mary Parish.

When thinking about delisting the endangered Louisiana black bear, the criteria to achieve that goal requires two main viable populations having a 95 percent chance of survival for more than 100 years. Additionally, there must be critical habitat designated and preserved, such as Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge here in St. Mary Parish. And, there must be exchange between populations.

That 100-year survival is contingent upon habitat. Acorns are a prime food resource for bears and other animals during the fall. But, ask any deer hunter who hunts south of U.S. 90 how many acorns remain under a water oak on his lease by the end of November and he’ll probably tell you not too many. The ground will be scraped clean and the tree void of this hard mast.

Between the raccoons, squirrels and deer, it’s a wonder the bears get their share. But, they do. I’ve seen bears walking along La. 317 eating acorns that fall onto the road, and I’ve seen them in trees along canal banks at night wearing out the branches gorging themselves. However, once the acorns are gone, they look elsewhere.

In the fall when the sugar cane is being cut and the pickings become thin, that “elsewhere” is town. I’ve seen so many acorns in our neighborhoods you could sweep them up by the bushel full. I know if I were a bear, that’s where I’d want to be.

The same is true during the spring, where soft mast is concerned. Things like dewberries and black berries are a common food source for bears. During mild winters, where the bears haven’t really hibernated, not even the berries are available to them in March as we’ve seen during this period of contention.

The bottom line is the habitat between the rivers and much of St. Mary Parish is marginal and probably will never reach the 95 percent level required to sustain a bear population for a 100 years. And our backyards, work places and stores are right up against this marginal habitat.

The trick is how do we live with the bears we have and minimize human interaction? After all, no one wants to come face to face, nor have his or her prized retriever disabled if it can be prevented.

The fact is the Louisiana black bear is not the elephant in the room. Local officials and wildlife professionals haven’t ignored the problem, but neither can the local citizens adverse fears be ignored. More needs to be done.

Currently lots of attention is being given to bear proof garbage cans and adding up to 250 more south of the tracks in the problem area. Living in Crescent Acres, I happen to be the proud owner of one of those trashcans.

I must say, it is no more bear proof today than it was the day after the garbage truck driver picked it up with the hydraulic claw, banged it up and down a few times and one for good measure to empty it, and smashed it to the ground as if trying to stomp a roach with it well over a year ago when we first got it. I’ve been able to keep one of the two inertia latches working. And the good news is my garbage can hasn’t been raided in spite of its defects.

In short, you can add another 250, but without frequent inspections and maintenance it does no good as a tool to prevent bears from raiding these neighborhood trash containers.

By the same token, local residents should do their part by not overloading their garbage cans and reporting those that are defective. It does no good to have a bear proof receptacle if it’s not utilized as such.

St. Mary Parish Black Bear Conflict Officer Catherine Siracusa has been actively working with 4-H Club student volunteers from local schools distributing doorknob information packets in areas below U.S. 90 where the highest bear activity occurs.

Siracusa says the program was started in November, and several hundred residents have received the packets. However, due to the Christmas holidays and the lack of available time students can assist, the program hasn’t reached every home in the bear conflict areas. Plans are in the works to pick up where they left off.

Though much of Siracusa’s educational efforts have targeted school children, town hall style meetings have been scheduled with representatives from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries available to provide the public with information and education. Unfortunately, few residents have made themselves available to participate, which can be frustrating to officials.

Psychologically, no mother with young children playing in the yard is comfortable with bears so close by nor are families getting home after dark when the headlights shine on a bear under the carport. Experiences like these create animosity where you’d think a town hall bear education meeting would be packed with participants. In other words, it takes a concerted effort from both residents impacted and wildlife professionals to manage the bear problem.

Residents shouldn’t leave food on the back patio for their roaming housecats or containers with dog food. Barbeque pits also can attract bears; therefore, they should be cleaned and if possible, kept covered or stored in a garage.

Siracusa has gathered a lot of other tips in a PowerPoint presentation available to civic groups to help reduce human/bear encounters.

I’m confident most face-to-face Louisiana black bear interactions will not wind up with a human receiving a stitch. But, don’t get me wrong, interactions have resulted in injury and even death in other parts of the country. I’m saying most. Therefore, residents still need to be cautious.

I was face-to-face with a black bear a couple years ago on Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge, near the Palmetto Trail. It wanted no part of me, and I wanted no part of it. Amicably, we both backed away from one another — me to my truck and it to the woods — and we were no worse for wear.

But I must admit, it was a textbook encounter, and education is what helped me and would help folks in these neighborhoods where bears are unwelcome.

The local bear population is probably not going to grow much beyond what it currently is.

Moreover, they are here to stay.

But, this spring until the dew and black berries start producing, we may have to figure out how to get along with the bears for a while.

If you wish to make a comment or have an anecdote, recipe or story to share, contact Flores at (985) 395-5586 or gowiththeflo@cox.net.

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