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Isolated black bears in Chassahowitzka need help

Enough black bears roam Florida to keep the animals from extinction anytime soon, and by early next month wildlife officials will officially remove them from the state's list of threatened species.

But for a roughly 20-member band of bruins in the coastal swamps and forests of Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, the chances of survival without help from humans is not so rosy.

"It's one of the populations we don't consider recovered," said Susan Carroll-Douglas, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Isolated from other groups of black bears in the state, if left to its own devices, the group roaming around Weeki Wachee and Chassahowitzka — estimated at 12 to 28 bears — would dwindle without an injection of fresh genes and more bears.

"Unless they connect with other populations, they would probably slowly decline," Carroll-Douglas said. "Their numbers are so low."

Without more bears, the group — which was in the news recently when officials attempted, unsuccessfully, to introduce a new bear there — may not breed fast enough to replace mortality the animals face in nature and from encounters with humans, mainly on roadways.

With about 3,000 black bears now living in Florida, the animal will end more than three decades on the threatened species list. The low point was about 300 bears in the early 1970s. The state already has approved a plan to manage the bears, and they will officially become non-threatened in early August.

The shift may actually bring some attention to the Chassahowitzka bears, Carroll-Douglas said.

They will be one of the first groups studied, she said. There are no recent population surveys to find out how many bears live in the area, but game officials know the number is low.

The state management plan that's part of removing the bears from the threatened species list calls for developing ideas tailored for each population group, with a flexibility not necessarily available when the black bear was listed as threatened, Carroll-Douglas said.

For example, biologists might concentrate on developing more habitat or links to undeveloped areas for the Chassahowitzka bears while seeking to reduce encounters between bears and people around Ocala.

Also, the state wants to form a group of people and organizations in the Chassahowitzka area to advise biologists about the local bear population.

"The bears there might get more focus under the plan," Carroll-Douglas said.

Of the seven areas in Florida where bear populations are concentrated, Chassahowitzka has the fewest number of bears and the smallest gene pool.

Bears need lots of real estate to find food and mates and to search for both without mixing too much with humans. The Chassahowitzka group mainly roams about 165,000 acres, including the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, the state Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area and the Weekiwachee Preserve.

The state estimates some 500,000 acres are needed to support the game commission's goal of about 200 bears for the area, and about 1.6 million acres of potential habitat is available. About 470,000 acres of that are in public hands.

Game officials may try to introduce more bears into the Chassahowitzka area, but the escapades of the young male brought there last month show that adding a new bear to the population is not a sure-fire thing.

The bear, which wandered from his normal habitat in the Big Cypress Preserve in southwest Florida, first appeared around Sanibel Island about a year ago and was finally captured, though he was staying away from people the way bears are supposed to, said Gary Morse, a wildlife commission spokesman.

"He wasn't causing any problems. But we decided for the safety of the bear to move him," Morse said.

On June 20, the 270-pound bear was taken to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, where he was supposed to mingle with the small group in that area.

But the bear didn't take to his new home, Morse said, and promptly went searching for a mate, wandering back south. He was first reported around Land O'Lakes. Three days later, a bear was reported near Trout Creek and Flatwoods Park east of Interstate 75 in Hillsborough County.

Finally, on July 3, he was noticed in a tree near Busch Gardens.

This time, the tranquilized bear was shipped to the Panhandle to join the bears in the Apalachicola National Forest.

Isolated black bears in Chassahowitzka need help 07/14/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 14, 2012 11:53am]
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