NEW ORLEANS — The Louisiana black bear, the animal behind the "teddy's bear" inspired by President Theodore Roosevelt, has rebounded enough to pull it off the list of federally protected species, the government says.
U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell heralded the "recovery of a species" Thursday, though groups that have worked for decades to protect the bears disagreed or had doubts.
The black bear, which once roamed Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana, is now found in two parts of eastern Louisiana and in one place along the coast. Its removal from the federal list means the state will now take over work to protect it.
Jewell spoke at the Tallulah office of the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge, where Louisiana's biggest black bear population is found. Reporters elsewhere listened by phone as she described how Roosevelt's refusal to shoot a tied-up Louisiana black bear for a hunt trophy in 1902 inspired teddy bears.
Jewell said she got to hold a rescued 7-week-old cub that morning.
"The work's not over," she said. "The work's really just beginning to bring back more of these hardwoods so Louisiana can help enjoy the kinds of animals that Teddy Roosevelt saw when he was here at the turn of the century."
Michael J. Robinson, a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, said one of the groups being counted as Louisiana black bears may not be that subspecies at all, but descendants of black bears imported from Minnesota in the 1960s.
The group was initially excited by the bear's progress but more recently became aware of a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist's opposition because the upper Atchafalaya Basin area northwest of Baton Rouge, where the smaller eastern group is found, had no black bears until the Minnesota bears were brought in.
"Rather than contributing to the black bear population, they threaten to hybridize it," and probably should be sterilized or moved back to Minnesota, Robinson said.
Deborah Fuller, a federal biologist based in Louisiana, said the most recent genetic study indicates "the upper Atachafalaya bear comes out as its own thing. Not as Minnesota," though it may have Minnesota genes.
Local Sierra Club chairman Harold Schoeffler, who sued in 1987 to get the bears listed, said he will be talking on Friday with an attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, which handled the earlier lawsuit.
Schoeffler said he thinks there just aren't enough bears to consider recovered. He estimated numbers around 700.
The estimated total was once below 100. Schoeffler said it was 300 to 350 when he went to court in 1987.
A years-long DNA census released in 2014 estimated the number at 350 to 600 north of Interstate 10 in Louisiana. Those south of U.S. 90 in south-central Louisiana — the "lower Atchafalaya basin" have not yet been counted.
"When we delisted alligators, we probably had 50,000. When we delisted pelicans, we had 28,000 or 30,000," he said.
Fuller said new research indicates there may be nearly 700 bears just in northeast Louisiana. And, while numbers are important, so is whether they can thrive. Biologists think that answer is yes, she said.
Paul Davidson, executive director of the Black Bear Conservation Coalition, said one of the recovery plan's required objectives — creating a corridor between the two populations above Interstate 10 — has not been met because forests don't link the areas where they live.
University of Tennessee biologists said genetics show there is such a corridor, since some bears from those groups have mated.
Theodore Roosevelt Association about teddy bears: http://bit.ly/1oWpyrl