By all official accounts, Ursus americanus luteolus — the Louisiana black bear — is thriving, rescued from near extinction in one of the Endangered Species Act’s latest victories.
But talk to the Louisiana conservationists who have dedicated three decades to saving the bear, and they’ll tell you that it’s in greater danger than ever. They say government agencies manipulated data and cooked up a premature “recovery” for political purposes, sacrificing the bear to save the Act itself from potential extinction.
The campaign to bring back the Louisiana black bear was supposed to be a landmark conservation effort, one that would sidestep the polarized deadlock typical of endangered-species disputes. Instead, this hapless mammalian subspecies ended up as a bargaining tool between pro-industry Louisiana politicians and desperate Washington bureaucrats.
The conservationists have now filed suit to put the bear back on the list. But as the White House moves to gut the Endangered Species Act, the bear may be running out of time.
You’d be forgiven if you couldn’t identify the Louisiana black bear in a lineup of the 16 black-bear subspecies that roam North America, even if you already knew it had a longer, narrower skull and larger molars than the rest. But this is one of America’s most important bears. You have seen, and likely held, quite a few of them.
In order to explain this, we need go back a bit in time. In the fall of 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt had gone bear hunting along the Louisiana-Mississippi border. After two frustrating days with no bear sightings, his assistant, a former slave and Confederate soldier named Holt Collier, tracked a bear down on his own and tied it to a tree for Roosevelt to kill. But Collier had made a mistake. Roosevelt was a pioneer conservationist, who would go on to found the country’s first wildlife agencies and federally protect one tenth of the nation’s land. When he came upon the scene, the president refused to shoot a bound animal, finding it quite unsporting.
A few days later, The Washington Post published a cartoon showing Roosevelt saving the cute, helpless cub. An enterprising couple in Brooklyn saw the image and quickly stitched together a few stuffed toys based on the bear to sell in their candy shop. Word spread, and soon children across the country were demanding their parents buy them “Teddy’s bear.”
Inventing the world-famous toy would make the couple a fortune through the Great Depression, but the real bear wouldn’t come out quite so well. Farmers began tearing up Louisiana’s swampy forests and marshland — the bear’s natural habitat — and planting soybeans and sugarcane in order to obtain the agricultural subsidies offered by the next President Roosevelt’s New Deal. At the same time, rapid development of the state’s countryside cut the bear population into isolated pockets, and cars became the animal’s new main predator. On top of all this, Louisiana’s wetland coast was eroding at a rate of about four -and-a-half football fields per year.
The bears slowly disappeared. Where around 80,000 bears once roamed more than 24 million acres of pre-colonial Louisiana and the edges of Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi, by the 1950s an estimated 80 to 120 lived in a range of just 4 million acres. This was bigger than just one animal. The Louisiana black bear is a “keystone species,” meaning that it keeps the larger ecosystem of warblers, alligators, water tupelo, bald cypresses, and many others in balance. As goes the bear, so goes the swamp.
The state of Louisiana showed no interest in the bear’s stark decline, however, until Harold Schoeffler started making a fuss. Schoeffler, a 79 year-old retired Cadillac dealer, lives in Lafayette, the de facto capital of Louisiana Cajun country. In his free time, he hunts deer, rabbits, squirrels, and ducks in the nearby Atchafalaya Basin, the nation’s largest wetland. He even went on a few bear hunts as a kid. “I’m no animal rights activist,” he told me. “I’m an outdoorsman.”
All the same, his other hobby is filing — and winning — pivotal environmental lawsuits. After seeing Louisiana’s oil industry desecrate his favorite childhood hunting grounds, Schoeffler became an amateur ligitator, drawing on his natural salesmanship and his experience overseeing court-martials in the army. In the late 1980s, he was fresh off a nearly $1 million Supreme Court ruling against eight oil giants over destructive shell dredging along the Gulf Coast when he was contacted by Ronald Nowak.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist from Louisiana, Nowak had been trying to study luteolus skulls but was having a hard time finding any trace of them. He then realized the animal was dying out. Nowak attempted to negotiate within the Service for an endangered species listing, but he was rebuffed. He turned to Schoeffler, by then regionally renowned. The car dealer, along with the Sierra Club and the Defenders of Wildlife, sued the Service in 1991 to list the black bear.
“The world was against us on this,” Schoeffler said. “The farm boys, the timber boys, the oil boys.” Ninety percent of the bear’s forested habitat was privately owned; big, commercial landowners feared that an endangered species listing, and the critical habitat designation that usually comes with it, would block them from using their own land. But, coincidentally, the suit ended up on the desk of one of the Justice Department attorneys who had handled the shell dredging case. Schoeffler remembered the phone call he received soon afterward from the lawyer, who feared another drawn-out, expensive legal battle.
“Our history of dealing with you guys legally has been really dismal,” the lawyer told Schoeffler. “We’ve lost every battle that we’ve been in with you.”
“And you’re going to lose this one, too!” Schoeffler said.
Two weeks later, the Fish and Wildlife Service was at the bargaining table with Schoeffler, the Sierra Club, and the Defenders of Wildlife. Cornered by these organizations’ meticulous data and Schoeffler’s legal reputation, the Service decided to settle. By the next year the Louisiana black bear was officially named a “threatened” subspecies under the Endangered Species Act. The campaign to restore its habitat and rebuild its population would begin.
Traditionally, once the Service listed the bear, its regional office would have worked in private with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to develop a recovery plan, setting the habitat restoration guidelines and the rules for how the protected land could be used. However, the tense climate around endangered species conservation at the time forced a new approach.
“Everyone feared that the bear would become the northern spotted owl of the South,” said biologist Paul Davidson, referring to the now-decades of standstill between activists and logging companies in the Pacific Northwest. To avoid a similar deadlock in Louisiana, conservationists, landowners, timber industry members, biologists, and wildlife agency personnel came together as a non-profit, the Black Bear Conservation Coalition, to develop a recovery plan they could all support. Davidson, coming from the state’s Nature Conservancy, became its director. (He also just loves bears. “Trust me,” he said, “the more you learn about bears, the more fascinating you’ll find them.”)
Instead of imposing the typical rigid land-use restrictions, the Coalition developed a voluntary approach, getting the federal government to pay the owners of unproductive farmland to return it to forest and wetlands. Davidson and his colleagues were adamant there was enough of this marginal land that none of its owners’ commercial interests would be significantly affected, keeping everyone at the table. “We were really trying to show people how to restore a species,” said Davidson.
Not to say that there wasn’t conflict. “We yelled and screamed and hollered,” Murray Lloyd, a lawyer and founding Coalition member, said of one meeting. But despite their clashing viewpoints, for over two decades they made real progress. “Then,” Lloyd continued, “We all went out to lunch.”
Fast forward to March 2016, when the Fish and Wildlife Service triumphantly struck Ursus americanus luteolus from the endangered species list. The threats to the bear had been reduced or eliminated, the agency announced. With the population reaching 750 and more than 800,000 acres of habitat protected or restored, projections indicated the bears could live on for at least another century. Sally Jewell, who was at the time the Secretary of the Interior, lauded it as “another success story for the Endangered Species Act.”
But to Schoeffler and many others, it was far from that. This June, Schoeffler, a local conservation organization called Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, the environmental legal group PEER, and some other like-minded activist-outdoorspeople filed a suit to get the bear re-listed. They said that the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries had not followed the recovery criteria they themselves had set out in the 1990s.
The criteria were simple. The problem was that rural development — “turning swamps into subdivisions,” in Schoeffler’s words — had cut the Louisiana black bear into three isolated groups, or “subpopulations,” of about 30 to 50 bears each, lacking the genetic diversity needed to survive. To create genetic flow, the Department was supposed to connect two of these subpopulations with a permanently protected corridor of forest, which would allow bears from the two groups to mingle and mate.
“There’s nothing even close to protected corridors,” Paul Davidson told me. Instead of a true forested corridor, Davidson estimated that about half of the land remains bear-unfriendly. Many landowners simply never made good on their pledges to return their underproducing cropland to forest, preferring to grow and sell crops even if the returns were meager.
And the corridor the department chose might have been misguided to begin with. Of the four subpopulations, the Department decided to build a corridor between those in the centrally located Tensas River Basin and those in the Upper Atchafalaya River Basin 200 miles south.
But the Upper Atchafalaya bears aren’t Louisiana bears; they’re the smaller, standard American black bear — “Puny little things,” Schoeffler said — trucked in from Minnesota in the 1960s when hunters ran out of native-born meat. By connecting these populations, the lawsuit says, the Department isn’t actually saving the Louisiana black bear but instead is creating a hybrid bear and passing it off as a pure Ursus americanus luteolus. Meanwhile, the two other subpopulations remain as isolated and threatened by habitat loss as ever, especially those along the state’s vanishing coast.
“I’m familiar with that argument,” Joseph Clark, a University of Tennessee biologist who ran the study that eventually justified the delisting, told me. He stressed that his team’s job was solely to analyze the data and see if it met the questions asked by the Department to confirm recovery: Was there evidence of genetic flow between two subpopulations of black bear in Louisiana? Yes. Were the two subpopulations likely to persist? Yes. Beyond that, he said, “We leave the value judgments to other people.”
Davidson said he trusts that Clark and his colleagues properly examined the data according to the recovery criteria. It’s the criteria itself that he takes issue with. Unlike with other endangered species, like the grey wolf or the grizzly bear, the conditions set out for delisting the black bear weren’t quantifiable. The Department never set a target population or habitat size, instead relying on goals like “corridor” and “viability,” which are open to interpretation and can be “massaged,” said Davidson. And after two-and-a-half decades of working with the Department, he has more than a sneaking suspicion that this wasn’t a mistake, either. “Listen,” he said, “I know how unethical the Department is, and how badly they wanted delisting.”
“Everything went fine for 25 years,” said Davidson, “until the politics got into it.” In 2009, former state senator Robert Barham was named secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. According to Davidson, whose office was in the department, Barham had barely walked through the door before he began pushing to delist the bear. The population had seen good growth, doubling in size since the listing. But Davidson and the Coalition fought back, believing it was far too early to claim a recovery. “We wanted the delisting to be based on science, not politics,” he said. And the way he saw it, Barham was all politics.
Barham, fresh from 14 years in the state legislature, had been appointed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, a steadfast defender of industry over environment who once called climate change a “trojan horse.” By getting the bear off the list, Schoeffler said, Barham would be helping out the state’s powerful landowners — the aforementioned timber, farm, and oil boys — who, despite their cooperation with the Coalition, would ultimately prefer no government influence on how they use their land.
Barham would also get to kill bears. As early as 2011, the secretary said he was “working hard” to revive bear hunting. The Department hasn’t issued bear licenses since 1988, though a poll this year showed that most Louisianans would favor their return. In Davidson’s view, Barham, more than anything, wanted a recovered, hunt-able black bear to be his lasting legacy.
When it started to look like the delisting would go into effect, Davidson and the Coalition sought back-up from the regional Fish and Wildlife Service office. Louisiana politicians may be crooked, they reckoned, but the federal bureaucrats would straighten them out. They were surprised to find that, despite data pointing in the other direction, the federal agency was fully behind Barham.
This was in 2014, when the Republicans took Congress. On the issue of endangered species, the GOP has long sided with industry and developers. Think tanks like the Heritage Foundation point out that few species have ever been taken off the list, despite hundreds of millions spent every year on strict regulations. For conservatives, this is further proof of how big government fails, wastes taxpayer money, and inhibits commerce.
The Fish and Wildlife Service officers told Davidson and his colleagues that the federal government was pressing them for success stories; if Barham wanted to delist the bear, no matter the reason, they would support it.
When Davidson, and the Coalition, opposed this, they became the enemy. “Barham didn’t want those guys hanging around,” said Schoeffler. “They had too much credibility.” First, the Department started pressuring the Coalition’s board members to fire Davidson. When they didn’t, the department simply pushed the Coalition off the campaign. Davidson wasn’t even invited to the pre-delisting ceremony held at the governor’s mansion in May 2015, though he attended anyway. He continues to drive across Louisiana advocating for the black bear, but he does so without the official recognition, and the paltry $18,000 per year, that the Department paid him.
“It’s pretty demoralizing to see the politics and the money undermine what you’ve spent your entire career putting in place,” he said. “My job was never to bad-mouth anybody or alienate anybody. I’m a team player, you know, I’ll work with ‘em, but in the end it wasn’t about teamwork anymore.”
A month after the lawsuit was filed, Donald Trump’s Department of the Interior announced a proposal allowing Endangered Species Act decisions to take into account economic concerns, undermining the whole purpose of the act. The question is, if luteolus was in fact trotted out as the Act’s sacrificial bear, was it worth it?
I wanted to ask the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, but they wouldn’t speak with me. (Won’t it look weird, I asked their press officer, for the department to refuse to talk about one its major success stories? “We’re willing to accept that,” he replied.) Neither would the Fish and Wildlife Service. And I couldn’t find a trace of Barham, who left the Department shortly after delisting and then retired without a bear hunt, amid allegations of hundreds of thousands in mismanaged funds.
In the meantime, Harold Schoeffler is waiting for the suit to go forward. Is he worried? “Um…no!” he said. “Ultimately we’ll prevail. The courts have been friendly to us all along.” He pointed to the September federal court decision to end grizzly bear hunts, ruling they had been wrongly delisted.
Schoeffler paused, then offered some advice: “You know, you can’t change the world. But you might just put a dent in it!”