By Brian Broom
The killing of a Louisiana black bear in Lauderdale County didn’t end well for two Mississippi men this week, and it could be worse for a third.
According to the US Attorney’s Office, Southern District, Travis Butler of Meridian caused another unnamed person to kill an endangered Louisiana black bear in January 2014. Following the killing, Butler and Chester Brad Williams, also of Meridian, transported the animal to taxidermist David Lucas Wimberly of Quitman to have it mounted.
Soon after, an investigation was begun by federal and state authorities and Butler convinced Wimberly to hide the bear’s skin, the US Attorney’s Office said.
Earlier this year, Williams pleaded guilty to possessing and transporting the Louisiana black bear to Wimberly in Quitman to be mounted. Wimberly pleaded guilty to possessing the bear.
Butler pleaded guilty to his role in the killing and to obstructing a federal investigation. As a result of pleading guilty to the obstruction charge, Butler can no longer own a firearm.
Wimberly and Williams were sentenced in federal court this week.
Paying the price
Appearing before United States District Judge Henry T. Wingate, Wimberly was sentenced to one year of probation, a $1,000 fine and $3,333.33 in restitution to the BEaR Education and Restoration Group. BEaR is a non-profit foundation for the restoration of black bears in Mississippi.
Additionally, Wimberly cannot hunt or take wild game for one year and must mount the black bear and forfeit it to the US Fish and Wildlife Service for educational purposes.
Williams’ sentence included a $1,000 fine, $3,333.33 in restitution to BEaR, one year of probation, four months of home confinement, and the loss of hunting privileges for one year.
Butler is scheduled for sentencing in September and the penalties could be severe. Butler faces up to one year in prison and a possible $100,000 fine under the Endangered Species Act for his role in the killing of the bear. An obstruction of a federal investigation conviction carries a maximum of 20 years in prison and a fine up to $250,000.
Road to recovery
Because of habitat loss and other factors, the Louisiana black bear population had dwindled to three breeding subpopulations in Louisiana by 1992, according to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. But after 23 years of protection and restoration efforts, the population is stable and growing subpopulations have expanded into Mississippi.
Because of that success, USFWS has proposed removing the Louisiana black bear from the endangered species list.
“This is a proposed delisting,” USFWS Connie Dickard said. “At this point, it’s all the same. If the proposal goes through, then things will change.”
Part of the removal process includes a public comment period, which ends July 20.
“We still have a couple of months in this process before it’s complete and a final decision is made,” Dickard said. “We still have a good amount of time before we write the final proposal.”
If the Louisiana black bear’s endangered status changes, one thing in Mississippi won’t — they will remain protected.
“Unless the commission or the Legislature lists that as a game animal, it will still be protected,” said Steve Adcock, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Enforcement Bureau chief. “They may be delisted as endangered or protected federally, but they will be protected by the state.”
And with the population in Mississippi estimated between 150 and 250 black bears, it’s unlikely they will become a legal game animal anytime soon.
“There’s not a huntable population,” Adcock said. “You can’t just go out there and shoot a bear.
“What will happen is, if delisted, at that time we will build a regulation around that. There are regulations for all critters now. There has to be some regulation to help protect it.”
To comment on the removal of the Louisiana black bear from the endangered species list, visit www.regulations.gov.