The forest that once covered a broad swath of land along either side of the lower Mississippi River, from southern Illinois to Louisiana, is known as bottomland hardwood forest. The land in its natural state is frequently flooded by overflowing rivers and streams, so the vegetation that thrives there is made up of specialized species that tolerate both wet and dry conditions. The region is often referred to as North America's rainforest, and features an exceptional level of biodiversity.

Faulkner's central character learns to hunt and to be a man in these woods in the 1870s, when the author could still describe them as "the thick great gloom of ancient woods," although they were already suffering the clearing and conversion to agriculture that he deplored. While this continued through the next century, another assault was added in the form of massive flood control projects carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The river was channeled and leveed until it flooded no more, depriving the forest of both the wetness and the nutrients carried by the floodwaters. Today some 80% of the forest is lost, and the remainder is badly fragmented and degraded.

Among the victims of this state of affairs are the black bears of the Lower Mississippi. Overhunting in the declining years of the 19th century, just when Faulkner's story takes place, reduced their numbers to a fraction of what they once were; and ongoing habitat loss and fragmentation of the forests finished the job. By 1932 there were fewer than a dozen bears remaining in the state.

Mississippi actually hosts two subspecies of black bear, the American black bear in the north and the Louisiana black bear in the remainder. Both were declared endangered in the state in 1984, perhaps rather belatedly. The Louisiana black bear was also labeled federally "threatened" and added to the U.S. Endangered Species list in 1992.

The restoration of both forest and bear are closely linked. The first effort to help the forest recover came with the Farm Bill of 1985. Included in its provisions were the Swampbuster Program, which discouraged the conversion of forestland to agriculture, and the Conservation Resource Program, which promoted the replanting of bottomland hardwoods. Only native species were allowed to be replanted, and the needs of targeted wildlife species, including the black bear, were given high priority.

To date, hundreds of thousands of acres of bottomland hardwood have been replanted in the states bordering the Lower Mississippi, with an eventual goal of at least a million acres. Given that most of the eligible land is in private hands, federal and state agencies have worked together to create financial incentives. Private organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited have helped to educate landowners and the public about the benefits, both ecological and economic, of restoring the forests, which will eventually protect over 400 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish. Many landowners have expressed a particular interest in bringing back bear habitat. An interest in carbon sequestration has played a role as well.

It turns out however that if you build it, they won't necessarily come. Boosting bear populations turns out to require more than providing adequate habitat. Young males will often disperse from their home territory because of competition from older males; but young females tend to establish home ranges near their mothers, making it unlikely they would rear new cubs in a new land. Furthermore, the black bear has a strong homing tendency, and efforts to relocate them usually result in the bears simply making their way back to where they came from.

This problem has been addressed by relocating mothers with young cubs. The requirements of caring for the cubs, and their inability to travel long distances, makes it essential for the mother to stay in the area, eventually becoming familiar with it and establishing her new home range there. With this technique, the first cubs born in Mississippi in a half century arrived in 2005, on a former soybean farm that had been converted to forest through the USDA's Wetland Reserve Program. More cubs have been born in every year since. Mississippi now boasts an estimated 120 black bears and growing, a remarkable achievement in such a short time and, it seems, a true endorsement by the bears of the hard work of replanting.

We may not soon see another huge and craggy bruin to rival Faulkner's, but given sufficient habitat and time, the bear may once again swagger its way into the communal imagination of the South.