Louisiana black bear adds to state folklore
By James L. Cummins
Special to The Messenger
Black bears hold a special place in the folklore of Mississippi.
Historical accounts describe bears as “common” throughout the bottomland hardwood forests of the state’s major river drainages in the early 1800s and were considered extremely valuable as a source of food, fur, and oil.
Mississippi is home to two subspecies of black bears. American black bears (Ursus americanus) are found in northern Mississippi while the Louisiana black bear (Ursus americanus luteolus) can be found in the southern two-thirds of the state as well as Louisiana, eastern Texas, and southern Arkansas. Black bears were listed as endangered in Mississippi in 1984 and the Louisiana subspecies was listed as federally threatened in 1992. Overhunting and habitat loss were the primary reasons for the population decline in Mississippi.
Louisiana black bears are generally black and often have a white blaze of hair on their chests.
Adult males weigh from 200 to 400 pounds while adult females can weigh from 120 to 200 pounds. Body lengths can range from 3 to 6 feet from nose to rail.
Female bears usually begin having cubs when they are 3 to 5 years of age. Cubs (usually 2) are born in winter dens (hollow trees, logging slash piles, or ground “nests”) in January or February and do not emerge with their mother until April or May. Cubs will stay with their mother throughout the year and will den with her during the following winter. The family reemerges the following spring and will stay together until summer when the young disperse.
Black bears are not true hibernators but go through a period of winter dormancy called carnivorean lethargy. During this time, the bear exhibits a slower metabolism and will not eat, drink, or eliminate waste from its body. All waste products are recycled through unique metabolic and physiological processes.
Most bears are easily aroused if disturbed while denning.
Although the Louisiana black bear is classified as a carnivore, they are not active predators. The majority of a bear’s diet is comprised of seasonal plant materials such as grasses, acorns, and berries. The animal component of a bear’s diet is primarily insects, grubs, and carrion. Agricultural crops such as corn and wheat are also important components of a bear’s diet, especially in fragmented habitats.
Louisiana black bears prefer relatively large areas of forested habitat that provide escape cover, travel corridors, and a diversity of natural foods. Home range size for bears is influenced by sex, population density, food availability, and reproductive status. Movements by bears are based primarily on the search for food and for available mares during the breeding season. M ale bears move much greater distances than females and can have home ranges of more than 40,000 acres while females may occupy an 18,000-acre range. Older male bears may force younger males out of their territory and cause chem to disperse. This dispersal puts them at considerable risk as they cross roadways into unfamiliar territory and come into contact with humans.
James L. Cummins is executive director of Wildlife Mississippi, a non-profit, conservation organization founded to conserve, restore, and enhance fish, wildlife, and plant resources throughout Mississippi. Their website is www.wildlifemiss.org.