Last week, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping reached an historic agreement to address the growing issue of climate change. The deal provided some much-needed good news for environmentalists. Those who keep up with news on environmental issues probably know reasons for optimism are hard to come by these days. Throughout the world natural wildernesses are shrinking and iconic animal species such as the tiger, lion and Tasmanian devil are severely imperiled.
However, there are reasons to keep hope alive. The United States has pulled off some remarkable environmental feats since then-President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law in 1973. Much of the nation’s formerly threatened wildlife has been rescued from the brink of extinction and are now thriving in their preserved natural habitats. Louisiana especially has many amazing wildlife recovery stories. Here are a few of our state’s most notable ones.
1. The Louisiana Black Bear: The Louisiana black bear is distinct from the other fifteen American black bear subspecies due to its smaller and narrower skull. They once ranged throughout Louisiana, the southern portions of Mississippi and Arkansas and the eastern parts of Texas. Their numbers were greatly reduced in the twentieth century as a result of over hunting and conversion of their habitat for human use. By the late 1950’s the bear population in Louisiana had dropped to about 100 mature individuals, yet hunting was still permitted. The Louisiana black bear was officially listed as a threatened species under the ESA. The state launched a recovery plan in 1995 with the goal to remove the bear from the threatened species list by 2025. The Louisiana government designated the remaining bear habitat for conservation and worked to restore part of what habitat had been lost. After almost two decades of careful management later, Louisiana now boasts a growing and stable black bear population of roughly 500. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now seriously considering delisting the bear from the Endangered Species Act, well ahead of the recovery project’s original goal. The American black bear is considered well off overall. The IUCN has classified it as “least concern” and its total numbers are estimated to be more than double that of all other bear species combined.
2. The Brown Pelican: The brown pelican is, of course, Louisiana’s state bird. It is the smallest species of pelican and the only one known to dive into water to hunt fish. It’s hard to imagine not seeing one in Louisiana, yet that nearly became a reality. The state’s pelican numbers plummeted in the 1950’s because of the widespread use of chemical pesticides such as DDT. These pesticides were so damaging that pelicans stopped nesting on the Louisiana coast in the early 1960’s and were gone completely from the state by 1966. The pelican landed on the endangered species list in 1972, and a federal ban on DDT quickly followed. Once granted protection, pelicans began to recover and repopulate their former home range. Approximately 40,000 pelicans once again call Louisiana home, and as many as 650,00 reside on the Gulf Coast. They were removed from the ESA in 2009.
3. The Red Wolf: I cheated a little here. There currently are no red wolves in Louisiana, but there is a connection. North America’s lesser-known wolf species once ranged throughout the American southeast. However, habitat loss and deliberate persecution fueled by human fears of Old World wolves quickly reduced their numbers. Coyotes, undaunted by urbanization, soon invaded areas where wolf populations were low, and the two species started to interbreed, further compounding the wolves’ predicament. It wasn’t long before the wolf-coyote hybrids outnumbered the pure wolves. By 1970, the red wolf’s had been extirpated from almost all of its historic range, with only a small population remaining near Louisiana’s southwestern border with Texas. The red wolf was among the first species to be granted federal protection by the ESA in 1973, but it was far too late for them to recover through natural means. The U.S. federal government devised a bold and unprecedented plan to save the red wolf. The feds captured fourteen of the last remaining wolves with the intent to breed them in captivity and later release them into the wild. Red wolves were declared extinct in the wild in 1980, but it didn’t last long. The captive bred wolves were released into North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in 1987. Their numbers currently stand at about 130 individuals. The red wolf reintroduction project was the first of its kind in the United States and its success helped set up the blueprint for other species reintroduction projects such as the gray wolf, black-footed ferret and Florida panther.
4. The American Alligator: No list like this is complete without the American alligator. It is arguably the greatest wildlife recovery story for a single species in North American history. When the alligator was listed in the Endangered Species Act in 1973, its population had dropped to just a few hundred thousand across the southeast, habitat destruction and poaching being the main causes. It did not take alligators long to recover once protected by law. Thanks to hands-on management by both federal and state agencies, alligators quickly began to repopulate their remaining habitats, as well the ones the state had restored for them. They were removed from the endangered species list in 1987. Their numbers in Louisiana alone now stand at over two million, and growing. The alligator is critical for a healthy wetland ecosystem. As the apex predator, they help control the numbers of all of their prey species, including the invasive and destructive nutria.
It just goes to show that Louisiana is not the cultural and political wasteland that the rest of the country believes it to be. I think even the staunchest conservative can agree that eliminating an entire species is not going to do any favors. Except maybe mosquitos. Can those be extinct by next summer, please?