Along the floodplains where the White River of Arkansas meets the mighty Mississippi, lies one of the largest tracts of bottomland hardwood forests remaining anywhere in North America. Here the fertile forests, three hundred lakes, plus various streams, sloughs, and bayous make up the spectacular 160,000-acre White River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).
In historical times, this region was also home to a thriving population of black bear (Ursus americanus), but by the 1940s the population had dwindled to only about 25 isolated animals. With protection on the refuge, however, the population rebounded, so much so that by the 1990s biologists estimated as many as 400 bears were living inside and adjacent to the refuge.
The bear’s rebound was so convincing that wildlife managers supposed they now had a surplus. Some of this surplus was used to establish another subpopulation of bears by moving bears (mostly females) down to Felsenthal NWR in southern Arkansas – a process called translocation. Because bears from White River NWR often wandered outside the refuge boundaries, raiding crops and chicken coops, in 2001 the state opened a hunting quota outside the refuge with the aim of reducing landowner complaints.
But optimism over the White River bears was premature, if not entirely misplaced. Translocating bears for conservation, combined with the quota used in the hunt, caused the White River bear population to decline substantially. By 2007, scientists studying White River bears discovered that hunting caused an even greater proportional decline than had the translocations. Translocation and hunting were taking more females than males, so the population had become reproductively unbalanced. Because of their much smaller home ranges, female bears were far more vulnerable to capture AND to hunting.
What lessons can we learn from the White River bears? Sometimes our attempts at conservation go awry. No doubt resource officials had good intentions in trans-locating the bears, and trying to foster more social tolerance for this large carnivore by reducing conflicts. Yet this recovering population could not withstand both sources of removal at the same time. White River bears first show us how vital it is to have spatial buffers around otherwise isolated protected areas. And secondly, the bears demonstrate to us that it is not a wise idea to re-initiate a hunting regimen before a population has truly recovered. Sufficiently large population buffers are necessary before any removals are undertaken, whatever the reason.
Conservation experiments like this one still should be attempted if we can learn quickly and adapt. In this instance, science luckily gave us an early-warning signal that the management and conservation goals implemented for White River black bears could not yet be reconciled. Let’s hope that all species are fortunate in getting timely feedback from conservation research.
Chris Haney, Ph.D. is Defenders’ Chief Scientist