Mama bear, two cubs elusive|[04/13/07]

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 13, 2007

VALLEY PARK – Neither the human eye nor advanced satellite technology could locate a female black bear and two of her cubs in the grassy brush of south Issaquena County.

But it didn’t deter officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks and the owner of the land on which the cubs were born from celebrating what is believed to be the first bear births in the Mississippi Delta in 30 years.

The camera-shy cubs have been seen. They were born sometime in February on private land owned by Vicksburg native Hunter Fordice. On Thursday, the bears’ coming out was planned at Branning Lodge near Delta National Forest.

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Fordice said his first two sightings of bear on his property came during deer hunts he and his 13-year-old daughter, Helen, made in December and January.

&#8220I found a pile of scat,” Fordice said. &#8220I knew exactly what it was.”

The female was estimated to be 220 pounds and was identified by MDWFP biologist Brad Young as being one already captured and tracked in 2005 from Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge in south-central Arkansas near the Louisiana border.

On March 2, a group of 21 people, including Young, Fordice and Marsha Barbour, wife of Gov. Haley Barbour, ventured back into the forest, where biologists darted the mother bear, moved it to preserve its den, and implanted it with a Global Positioning System collar.

The cubs, both female, were estimated to be about 4 weeks old and each weighed 3.5 pounds. Female black bears reach breeding age at 3 to 4 years and first-time mothers have only a single cub at a time, leading biologists to conclude the bear on Fordice’s property is about 8 years old.

&#8220It’s been an incredible experience,” Fordice said, looking at Jack Branning, his neighbor across U.S. 61 North. &#8220The day is coming for you to experience it on your property.”

Both have obtained and returned vast areas of the lower Delta to nonfarming uses and long-term restoration as bottomland hardwood habitat.

Most of the land had been cleared for crops over the past 200 years, but before that it was ideal habitat for Louisiana black bears, which is a subspecies of the American Black Bear. The forests went, and so did the bears.

The subspecies was designated as &#8220threatened” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1992. Currently, the bears number about 40 in Mississippi, said Charles Knight, MDWFP conservation resource coordinator.

Thursday, Knight attempted to locate the bear and her two cubs using numeric codes specific to each tracking collar state biologists attach to bears in the wild, searching abundant thickets of trumpet vine for more than an hour.

When no signal came through an antenna attached to a dial pad, Knight and other wildlife experts attributed it to the signal being blocked by the density of the brush or, perhaps, motherly love.

&#8220The bear or the cubs may be laying on top of the collar,” said Libby Hartfield, director of the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science.

Fordice’s land west of U.S. 61 North is enrolled in two conservation programs managed by the USDA‘s Natural Resource Conservation Service, with help at the local level from state wildlife departments.

One, the Wetlands Reserve Program, assists landowners in restoring native habitats for wetland-dependent wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. Landowners are paid a one-time fee by the federal government to have native plant species planted in accordance to the soil type and other factors.

Black bears may have made the trek across the river years before lands were set aside to re-create ideal habitats. Fordice said the program’s effectiveness in preserving areas conducive for the mammals is key for the species’ survival.

&#8220This just verifies that (the program) is doing everything they said it would do.”

The other, the Conservation Reserve Program, seeks to preserve the land and prevent soil erosion. Landowners are paid by contract to plant native grasses and avoid planting crops.

In all, seven black bears on four other WRP sites adjacent to Fordice’s are tracked using GPS devices, Knight said.

Cathy Shropshire, executive director of the Mississippi Wildlife Federation, said such partnership with private landowners remains crucial for animal and plant species to thrive.

&#8220We only have a million acres of public land here (in Mississippi). If you provide the habitat, we can bring black bears back to Mississippi,” Shropshire said.

Although sometimes called bear &#8220restoration” projects, efforts to add habitat do not include bringing bears into an area.

President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid hunter, made multiple trips to the area in the early 1900s and hunted in Mississippi and Louisiana. It was at Smedes Plantation, in the same general region as Thursday’s event, that Roosevelt refused to shoot a young black bear that had been corralled for him. The teddy bear owes its name to that event.