Issaquena is in dither over bringing in bears|[3/15/05]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 15, 2005

MAYERSVILLE – People here have nothing against the teddy bear, but many would prefer numbers of living versions of the South Delta’s best-known animal be kept as low as possible.

More specifically, their worry is the federal regulations that might accompany the farming area’s designation as critical habitat.

The Louisiana black bear is the subject of one of the most famous hunts in the nation’s history – when President Theodore Roosevelt traveled to the South Delta in 1907. Roosevelt declined to kill a cub that had been coralled for him, prompting a newspaper cartoon of the event and, in turn, a request from a maker of toy bears to name them after the president. In short order, almost all stuffed toy bears became known as teddy bears. Teddies are even Mississippi’s official state toy.

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The hunt, held when the South Delta was mostly bottomland hardwood forest, is celebrated annually in Rolling Fork with the Great Delta Bear Affair, which raises funds to support bear restoration efforts. The Onward Country Store in south Sharkey County plasters its walls with posters and paint commemorating the event.

But neighboring Issaquena County wants no part of it. Its Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution last month opposing efforts to relocate black bears to the county of 2,200 people. District 2 Supervisor Gene Fulton said the resolution was prompted by the recent formation of the Bear Education and Restoration Group of Mississippi. But the statewide organization’s president, Jackie Henne-Kerr, said supervisors acted on faulty information.

First, she said the advocacy group, better known as BEAR, has been in existence since 1999 under another name. It reorganized in January and, in the process, took the BEAR name.

Second, she said, the board’s resolution falsely said the Environmental Protection Agency listed the black bear as endangered. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lists the black bear as threatened, federal documents show.

“The EPA, that’s really a scary word when it comes to farming and agriculture,” said Henne-Kerr, who owns a farm with her husband in Issaquena County. She asked the board to rescind the resolution in its March meeting, but was turned down.

“For the board to oppose this, it was not a good thing … It makes us look like we’re not willing to work with anybody,” Henne-Kerr said.

As farming increased, habitat decreased. A few black bears remain in the county’s remaining hardwood forests, but sightings are rare. Of the 26 people meeting on a Friday morning at the behest of Fulton, no one said they had ever been attacked by a bear or had a bear damage crops. One man said he had seen a bear, and one man said a bear had damaged beehives near Valley Park.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife field agent Ray Aycock said the controversy is pointless.

“If I were them, I’d be a lot more worried about al-Qaida blowing up a barbecue joint in Mayersville than Issaquena County being declared a critical habitat site,” Aycock said, referring to a federal designation that would add land-use regulations.

He continued, “There are no plans to reintroduce bears into Issaquena County. We don’t have any bears to reintroduce in Issaquena. If we did, more than likely we’d put them in Delta National Forest or one of the refuges.”

Delta National is a vast preserve where some bears remain. It is also home to a new interpretive center that tells the story of the bear.

Nevertheless, several citizens said they worried that more black bears would bring federal regulations to the county, maybe even attacks on humans. No such incidents have been reported.

“All of them that want the black bears, build a fence and put them there …,” said resident Willie Mae Moore. “I don’t want black bears anywhere near me. They are wild animals and you can’t tame them.”

Clifton Porter is a farmer in Issaquena County. “I’ve got grandkids in the yard. A bear comes up and I can’t kill it. What do I do?” he asked.

Killing a black bear can bring a hefty penalty. An Issaquena County man pleaded guilty in 2002 to killing a black bear and was ordered to pay nearly $10,000.

“Whether it’s a reality or not, the perception here is that bears are dangerous to our families,” Porter said.

That perception is incorrect, Henne-Kerr said.

“The chances that a bear is going to injure a human is very slim, probably like getting struck by lightning and definitely less likely than getting attacked by a dog,” Henne-Kerr said.

Land-use restrictions are also unlikely, officials said.

“There have been bears there for years and years. Issaquena County holds one of the few resident populations of bears in the state, and we’ve never put any sort of restrictions on them,” said Brad Young, a black bear biologist for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

Fulton said he didn’t want government regulations putting a halt to agricultural work, which almost completely fuels the county economy. Citing one example of government restrictions, Fulton said pallid sturgeon, an endangered species spawning in the Mississippi River, forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to halt dredging work for a few months each year on the county’s levee system.

Kent Parrish, the project manager for the Corps’ levee projects in the area, said different rules apply to federal projects.

“The federal government has one set of rules with endangered species, and Farmer Brown is not held to the same standard. It’s not anywhere close to the same standard. He could still go forth with a lot of things out there, even with endangered species in the area,” Parrish said.

He also pointed out that other work continues on the levee project while dredging is paused.

Best estimates are that 40 and 50 black bears live in Mississippi, Young said. The animals are omnivorous, but 90 percent of their diet is some sort of plant. Most of the animals they eat are insects, wildlife officials say.

Any relocation effort would be carefully monitored so that bears would have enough food available in the forests, Young said.

“We’re not going to overpopulate an area. It’s going to be done scientifically,” Young said.

Following the wishes of the board could have economic consequences. The largest system of wildlife refuges in Mississippi, the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex, surrounds, but does not include the county – by its own request. It consists of seven refuges comprising about 90,000 acres in Sharkey, Humphreys, Washington, Yazoo and Holmes counties. Hunting, fishing and wildlife observation opportunities draw 163,000 visitors a year to the refuges, official figures show.

Henne-Kerr said the BEAR’s goal is to get the black bear taken off the threatened species list, which, among other things, would allow it to be hunted.

Several Issaquena County residents said they don’t worry about lost tourism dollars.

Porter said, “Most tourists drive by on (U.S.) 61. Issaquena don’t have a place to buy a Coke on the highway. Reckon where they’re going to sleep or eat? Issaquena won’t make a dime. Is Vicksburg and Warren County going to send us any money? I don’t see any economic value for us.”

Fulton pointed out that Issaquena already attracts hunters. Several dozen hunting camps, some with expensive lodges, dot the county.

And while Issaquena County doesn’t like the idea of more bears, Sharkey County welcomes the promotional aspects, said Bill Newsom, president of the Sharkey County Board of Supervisors.

“We support the bear restoration effort. We are frantically trying to get the Holt Collier Center located in Sharkey County, where it should be,” Newsom said, referring to a proposed federally funded welcome center. Collier was Roosevelt’s guide on the famous bear hunt.