The Louisiana Black Bear is making a comeback in Mississippi, particularly in the counties along the Mississippi River and in the southern third of the Yazoo Basin, which stretches from Memphis to Vicksburg.
When Americans arrived in the Yazoo Basin they found sixteen million acres of bottomland hardwood forests. Ninety-five percent have been cleared for agriculture. Of that ninety-five percent, two or three million acres produced marginal farmland and should have remained in hardwood to serve the forest products industry.
After the Flood of 1927 the Main Line Levee ran from Cape Girardeau, Missouri to Venice, Louisiana on the west bank of the Mississippi and to Bohemia on the east bank. When the river flooded it backed up into the tributaries–the St. Francis, the Arkansas, the Red, and the Yazoo–flooding the lower parts of each basin, which were designated as flood storage areas. The farmers who were flooded out complained. Hence, the levees were run up the tributaries and anchored into the valley walls. Back flooding stopped, but when the interior streams in each basin flooded, they pooled against the levees, flooding the farm fields. Congress authorized drainage structures to release water from the flooded interiors, when the Mississippi dropped low enough to receive the water.
The lower third of the Yazoo Basin can become very wet when steams like the Big Sunflower, the Little Sunflower, and Deer Creek flood and back up behind the Main Line Levee at the foot of the basin. The Steele Bayou drainage structure is designed to release water from the region when the water reaches a certain height. It can only do so if the Yazoo River is not flooded at the same height or higher. This is why it is marginal farmland.
Soybean fields dropped in the 1960s and much of the lower third of the Yazoo basin was logged and turned over to soybeans which have a short growing season and can be sowed after flood water has been released through the drainage structure. But the land is still to wet too often for agriculture.
The Louisiana Black Bear lost habitat. And the bear was over hunted. Some of that land is returning to hardwoods through reforestation in the Delta National Forest and the Roosevelt Wildlife Refuges and on private lands that have been put in the Wetlands Reserve Program.
Over the course of the last two years, 2008-2010, 451,000 acres have been enrolled in the WRP in Mississippi. Once landowners enroll farmland in the WRP, they receive Federal assistance to return the land to its natural state, in many cases bottomland forests.
Since 1999 Mississippi has offered a tax credit of up to 50% of the cost of reforesting non-industrial land, providing the landowners have reforestation plans and have not enrolled their lands in other state or federal programs.
The Louisiana Black Bear is returning to Mississippi. It’s numbers have increased from 40 to 120 in the last decade.
[i] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Ecological Services, “The Relationship of Federal Flood Control and Drainage to the Agricultural Development of Wetlands in the Lower Mississippi Valley, A Case History: The Yazoo Basin, Vicksburg, Mississippi: October, 1986,1-13; Russell, T. Logan, President, Delta Land Trust, Mississippi River Basin Alliance Presentation, July 12, 1997.