There was a time in the Delta when black bears roamed the canebrakes of the Mid-South. There was also a time when they were hunted by such famous bear hunters as Davy Crockett, Bob Bobo, Holt Collier, Bob Lilly, Monroe Hamberlin, Asa Edwards, James Avent, Wade Hampton III, and Harley and Clive Metcalfe.
In the early 1930s, the black bear had disappeared from the Mid-South, except in the Arkansas White River bottoms, where by the 1940s only an estimated 25 to 50 remained, mostly in the White River National Wildlife Refuge.
In Mississippi, a 1929 game survey reported bears in northeast and north central Mississippi and along the Pearl River. Legal hunting closed in 1932 in Mississippi, when fewer than 12 existed.
Three pairs of bears were released in separate localities in 1934-35; this release was determined unsuccessful. In 1974, the black bear was placed on the first list of rare and threatened vertebrates of Mississippi. Two years later, the last breeding population in the state was documented in Issaquena County.
A statewide population inventory by the Mississippi Game and Fish Commission in 1978 reported bears as “uncommon” in 20 counties. In 1984, the black bear was classified as endangered.
In the 1950s and 1960s, efforts were made to repopulate both the Arkansas and Louisiana bear populations with bears from Minnesota.
In the Ouachita and Ozarks, 254 were released, while 161 were released in northeast, south central, and southern Louisiana. These attempts were successful, as bears are found in large tracts of heavily wooded bottomland hardwoods and swamps in the Tensas and Atchafalaya river basins and wooded corridors adjacent to sugarcane farms in St. Mary Parish.
In Arkansas, there were 2,000 in 1990. Today there are about 3,000.
Mississippi has several habitat areas that could support bear, but thus far none has established a resident, although there are several candidates.
Numero uno is a she-bear in Wilkinson County, who this past winter created a stir by having a litter of five cubs. A female normally births two cubs, sometimes three or four.
Preventing her from claiming the prize of first permanent resident is that she's not sure which home she likes best, because she wanders back and forth between Louisiana and Mississippi.
Prior to her Mississippi escapade, she had a four-cub litter in Louisiana, so she is highly productive.
Her competitor, meanwhile, is setting up a household at the Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge.
In September 2004, a hunter spotted a she-bear and a cub on the refuge. One month later, a young he-bear was spotted. Traps were set and a he-bear weighing 275 pounds was caught, tagged, and collared with radio transmitter. On May 25, 2005, the young he-bear was captured, weighing 115 pounds. So far, refuge manager Tim Wilkins, who has been at the refuge for 25 years, has been unable to capture the she-bear.
Twice a week they monitor the movements of the bears, which are staying within the refuge boundaries and not wandering off, knowing a good thing when they see it.
Adult males weigh 250 to 400 pounds and females 120 to 275 pounds. In the olden days, reports of he-bears weighing up to 700 pounds were not unusual. They're not dangerous except when bayed by a pack of bear dogs or when the she-bear has cubs. Then she's quite protective and best left alone.
Now that the ivory-bill woodpecker is back from extinction and the black bear is reestablishing itself in the canebrakes of Mississippi, what else can we expect?
How about some panthers or painters as the old-timers called them? With deer being their favorite food, it'll not be long until they're back!
Wayne Capooth — outdoorsman, writer, and physician — is medical director at the University of Memphis Student Health Services. He has written four books: The History of the Millsaps Family, Red Letter Days, The Golden Age of Waterfowling, and The Golden Age of Hunting.