'Teddy bear' no longer endangered: What's behind the 'rewilding' of America?

Once down to just three small breeding groups in 1992, the Louisiana black bear has clambered back from the brink of extinction. From bald eagles to mountain lions, some of America's rarest beasts have once again found sure footing.

Gerald Herbert/AP
A Louisiana black bear, a protected sub-species of the black bear, perches in a water oak tree in Marksville, La., Sunday. The young bear’s search for a new home has brought him into a central Louisiana neighborhood where he’s spent the past week up one tree or another.

The Louisiana black bear, the inspiration for the “teddy bear,” has clambered back from the brink of extinction, out of the Atchafalaya bottomlands, and promptly up into suburban neighborhood trees.

This month alone, three of the bears have had to be chased out of Louisiana neighborhoods, underscoring why the US Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday began proceedings to “de-list” the bear from the endangered species list, where it has been since 1992. In fact, the Louisiana black bear bear joins species as far ranging as alligators and armadillos, bald eagles and coyotes, that have seen populations explode and ranges expand amid a concerted, and sometimes controversial, American effort to return the backwoods to the beasts.

A potent combination of collaborative wildlife management techniques, cultural shifts in how Americans view large birds and mammals, the tenacity of the species themselves, and a cleaner overall environment have resulted in a record number of species being taken off the endangered species list in the Obama era, even as lawmakers start coming to terms with what it means to manage a country where raw, fanged wilderness now sniffs and grunts at the city limit.

“There is a rewilding of America going on, which is extraordinarily heartening,” says Andrew Wetzler, the director of the Land and Wildlife Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in Chicago.

The fact that a hunting and fishing state like Louisiana could turn around the plight of the black bear through teamwork, collaboration, and cooperation suggests to wildlife experts that air and water quality laws, as well as the Endangered Species Act, have dovetailed into a profound cultural shift that has turned the United States into a global model for species and habitat conservation.

“I think [environmental laws passed in the 1970s] worked, but there was also a huge, fundamental cultural shift that came with it,” says David Muth, director of the Gulf Restoration Program at the National Wildlife Federation’s office in New Orleans. “Bald eagles, ospreys, and a whole host of species that live on fish have come back in a spectacular way, and it’s in part because of laws, but it’s also because the people have changed.”

The creeping but undeniable expansion of wildlife in America overshadows to an extent the fact that many animals, including the Florida panther and California condor, continue to struggle for purchase on the continent. Habitat loss and climate change remain stark challenges for long-term success, even survival, for a wide range of species.

But it only takes a short walk into the woods to sense a new presence. It was only 30 years ago when many of America’s wild animals were in deep trouble, reeling from unchecked pollution, massive habitat loss, and mass predation by Americans with guns. The bald eagle was nearly gone, victim of DDT pesticides. Coyotes were rare, and the now ubiquitous white-tailed deer was an exceedingly rare sight.

But from New England’s kaleidoscopic fall forests to Louisiana’s wild swamps, nature – and her furry and winged cohorts – is on the march.

Once nearly completely cleared, New England’s dramatic reforestation has been followed by an influx of wild animals. Not long ago, Vermont had a handful of black bears, and it now has 6,000. In a 2013 story for the Boston Globe, correspondent Colin Nickerson noted that, “Also newly abundant are gray seals, eagles, and once-rare pileated woodpeckers that now rat-a-tat on old-growth trees right at the edge of Boston. Dive-bombing hawks are an almost ho-hum suburban spectacle.”

The American alligator was once hunted to nearly extinction, and is now back with a vengeance controlled only by a month-long annual hunt. Chicago is benefiting from some 200 rodent-eating coyotes prowling inside the city limits. And after being extinct east of the Mississippi, mountain lions are again expanding their range eastward.

The sudden abundance of animals that once were largely invisible – from roseate spoonbills to spawning herring – can now be glimpsed on short excursions into the wild.

During a jaunt through the Oconee National Forest in Greene County, Ga., it’s not unusual to see fox squirrels, turkey, coyote, and, majestically, large numbers of ospreys. Georgia counted a record 163 active bald eagle nests this year, and it doesn’t take much luck to see one glide down to grip a careless catfish. Stay up late and you’re liable to witness family groups of armadillos scrounging through the underbrush, nose-poking for grubs.

“It feels almost like we’re entering an age of miracles,” John Banks, director of natural resources for the Penobscot Nation, a tribe in Maine, told the Globe. “Great birds are again bold in the sky.”

The recovery of the Louisiana black bear is an illustrative tale of how this all happened. In 1902, President Teddy Roosevelt spared one during a hunting expedition in Mississippi. The story, relayed at the time in a Washington Post editorial cartoon, inspired the "teddy bear" phenomenon. But the great outdoorsman’s reluctance to fire at an animal that was once routinely killed on sight is perhaps the most enduring legacy from that day.

The bear recovery happened in part through moving some surviving bears around to improve the dwindling genetic stock. But the key to the project was allowing big patches of contiguous farm and timber land to return to a natural state along the lower Mississippi and Atchafalaya Basin – to, in effect, rebuild the bear's natural range.

According to US Fish and Wildlife field coordinator Debbie Fuller, it took everyone from timber companies to biologists, state wildlife managers to bee keepers, to help the bears recover after the population dwindled to three small breeding groups in 1992. Today, there are at least 750 animals, and Louisianans are having to reacquaint themselves with the soft-eyed bears.

“A lot of people didn’t grow up with a lot of bears, so they’re going through all kinds of changes as they get used to seeing them and living around them again,” says Ms. Fuller.

The rewilding of America is both a success story and cautionary tale, bound up in Washington politics over how best to conserve species, and even a deeper question: Who determines which species are important, which species are at full capacity, or the extent to which successful wildlife conservation plays a role in broader scientific concerns about global extinction events and climate change?

Such questions are being debated in Washington, D.C., as congressional Republicans push to weaken the Endangered Species Act, which is seen by some as an unnecessary federal intrusion that punishes responsible corporate players in the oil and timber industries. The Obama administration hopes changes to the program, including giving state wildlife managers greater say in the listing process, will help convince Republicans that the success of the law is no reason to scrap it.

“The attack on the Endangered Species Act is in full swing right now in Congress, and the Obama administration response has been to show that the act is working by delisting as many as species as we can, as fast as we can,” says Pat Parenteau, an environmental law professor at the University of Vermont in South Royalton. “The danger there is, if you’re wrong about the viability about some of these populations, then we’re going to be back where we were 20, 30, 40 years ago and be forced to either relist the species or watch them go.”

One such test case is the sage grouse. Most people have never heard of the largest American grouse, and many have never seen it, maybe because its population dropped by half between 2007 and 2013. Republicans in the Senate, who have vowed to reform the 1973 act for being too imposing on states, are blocking an attempt to have the bird listed as endangered.

Despite the congressional politics, however, the sage grouse is being helped. The US Department of Agriculture has devoted $425 million for its Sage Grouse Initiative, which helps pay landowners for conservation easements on their land. And the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is accommodating the birds on some 50 million acres. States and conservation groups are also on board, setting aside “core areas” to the bird’s survival.

But at least in the case of the Louisiana black bear, its rebound had less to do with its listing as endangered and more to do with an ensuing collaborative mindset that proved wildlife conservation doesn’t have to come with economic losses or hardship. Indeed, prominent among those who helped save the “teddy bear” were those whose forbears once hunted it to near-extinction.

“Build it and they will come, that’s what’s happening with black bears,” says NWF's Mr. Muth. “But it’s also that people more broadly value the wildlife. There are a lot of people out there, including deer hunters prowling one of the great deer hunting areas of the world, who could’ve all taken a shot at one of these black bears, and they didn’t.”

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