According to the story around November 1902 in the small town of Smedes, Mississippi, a brave soldier named Theodore Roosevelt got a mission from a local leader in which he had to participate in a hunt for the so feared black bear.
This story is now in the past. These bears have been protected for quite some time now by the government, but they were removed Thursday from the federal threatened list.
In Roosevelt’s time, these creatures were considered bloodthirsty, a scourge, terrifying predators that haunted the town’s days and nights. Beasts that attacked livestock and terrified both adults and children. Horse-mounted heroes with rifles in hand began to slay those fearful beasts, which was a demonstration of courage to get rid of those animals. Or at least, that’s what people thought.
By 1902, the wild woods of Mississippi were not quite as wild as people liked to picture them, and their inhabitants not quite so large and fearsome. Hundreds of years of hunting and habitat destruction had taken their toll. Far from the deadly predator of popular imagination, the black bear specimen that the hunting party happened on that fateful day in 1902, was mangy and exhausted from the long chase. Then the man blew into his bugle, summoning the president to deliver the fatal shot.
Cartoonist Clifford Berryman, drawing for The Washington Post, said that in the story Roosevelt arrived, took one look at the feeble beast with its big, frightened eyes. And he walked away.
It became part of Roosevelt’s larger than life persona, evidence of his benevolence, his principles, his kinship with nature. And, when a New York shop owner decided to name his signature stuffed bear after the animal-loving president, it fueled the production of a million toys and a new kind of relationship to wildlife.
Wild animals meant no longer a threat or a reason to feel fear, but instead, these creatures should be protected with the love and cuddles they deserve, cuddled if they are stuffed animal toys of course. This anecdote fits right into the modern conservation crusade that started with Roosevelt: Animals were the underdogs now and it was our fault. We needed to do what Roosevelt did, and “draw the line.”
Teddy bears sell fast, but cultural changes are slower, many years would need to pass in order for Mississippi and other Southern states stopped organizing black bear hunts and, even more, years if we wanted that killing black bears could be a crime. By that point, there were as few as 150 black bears in Louisiana’s hardwood forests and river basins, according to the Department of the Interior.
In 1992, the Louisiana black bear was placed on the federal list of threatened species.
The black bear’s condition today
“The Louisiana black bear is a symbol of our Southern wilderness,” Howard Schoeffler, chair of the regional Sierra Club, told Backpacker Magazine this month. “Its recovery is an atonement for our sins.”
In what the Interior Department heralded as a “pivotal” partnership with farmers, over the past two decades Louisiana has restored some 750,000 acres of black bear habitat, much of it on privately owned land. The government also barred hunting of the vulnerable animals.
Now between 500 and 750 of them roam the Southern U.S., according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Those numbers are a far cry from the 80,000 that Schoeffler says once dwelled in the area. And not everyone — especially not Schoeffler — is satisfied with them. He thinks it’s too soon to take the bears off the threatened species list.
“The Louisiana black bear is another success story,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said at the announcement of the bear’s no-longer-threatened status. “President Theodore Roosevelt would have really enjoyed why we are gathered here today.”