Flooding may have taken toll on Mississippi bear cubs

By Janet McConnaughey/The Associated Press

Last year’s Mississippi River floods may have killed a number of black bear cubs in Mississippi, the state’s black bear program leader said.

Three radio-collared females known to have had cubs this year had also given birth a year ago, said Brad Young of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

“Cubs stay with their mothers for 16 months,” he said. “What we’re taking away from this is that the litters of all three of those females were killed by high water. That’s why they had litters this year.”

Young said about 120 black bears live in the state — at least 80 percent of them are Louisiana black bears and the rest American black bears. With numbers of both subspecies so low, Mississippi has listed all black bears as endangered.

“While the flood didn’t have much effect on adult bears, obviously it had a big effect on our cub survival from last year,” Young said.

The data gathering on the bears and the apparent effects of the flooding continues, so the analysis is not yet complete.

State wildlife agents and University of Southern Mississippi graduate students have collaborated since 2005 to check on whether any females with radio collars have had cubs. Seven females currently have the collars, and three of them gave birth.

The researchers couldn’t get to a fourth. “We’re almost positive she has cubs,” Young said. “But she was holed up tightly in a tree that we couldn’t get down into. Three more we know did not have cubs this year.”

This year’s known mother bears include a Louisiana black bear checked March 1 in Issaquena County and two American black bears checked Monday in Bolivar County. The Louisiana black bear and one American black bear had one male cub each; the other Bolivar County bear had quadruplets: three females and a male.

“Back in 2005, we had a litter of five, which is just freakish by most standards in the Southeast. Since then, this is by far the largest litter we had,” Young said.

Although all were healthy when weighed and measured Monday, it’s unlikely that all cubs in such a large litter will make it.

“That’s not to say they couldn’t all survive — that’s certainly possible, especially in ideal habitat like we have along the river,” Young said. “But usually — the law of nature — the smallest will fall behind, become malnourished and susceptible to disease or exposure.”

He said it’s the eighth year in a row that cubs have been documented in the state. “Which isn’t a big deal in a lot of the states,” Young said. “But when you consider that, prior to 2005, it had been probably 40 to 50 years since we had documented the birth of bear cubs in Mississippi, it’s a very positive trend.”

To document and track cubs, a wildlife agent tranquilizes the mother with a dart while she’s in the den. Those may be on the ground or high in a hollow tree, but the agents can get up trees so quietly that the bear doesn’t know they’re coming, Young said.

Then the agent takes the cubs out of the den. They get weighed, measured, and implanted with a microchip between their shoulders just like the microchips used to identify cats and dogs. After that, the mother’s radio collar is replaced so it will last until the next spring.

“We put the whole family group back together and leave them in the den,” he said.

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