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Local bear population needs protection

What's it like for bears around here?

Well, the eastern boundary of the region's best bear habit is one of the state's most notorious sprawlways, U.S. 19. A study of these bears several years ago found that competition for territory was so fierce that adult males habitually ate their young. Combine that with the slaughter of cubs by cars and trucks and, not surprisingly, almost none of the young bears survived to sexual maturity.

Furthermore, this study determined that our community of bears — the one crowded into a strip of coastal lowlands from northern Pasco to southern Citrus counties — was not just small, but the smallest distinct bear population in the world.

And that's only if you consider it a population, Dave Telesco, the state's black bear management coordinator, said this week: "Really, it's more of a relic."

So, in our part of the state, at least, calling bears "threatened" is a drastic understatement, and offering the species the protection of that designation would seem to be the least we can do.

Yet, wildlife officials are recommending taking bears off the state's "threatened" list. It is scheduled to come before the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission next month.

Statewide, maybe, this is justified. Florida's bear population climbed from about 500 in the 1970s to roughly 2,800 in 2002, the last year biologists conducted a statewide census. Based on studies of individual groups of bears and the increase in nuisance complaints, that number is probably still going up.

On the other hand, the number of humans has definitely increased — to nearly 19 million, which is the real reason there are more reports of bears raiding garbage cans and bird feeders. We've moved into their territory.

And though small, slimy animals may be ecologically important, the public generally won't agree to buy land to save them. For that, you need creatures that look good on a license plate.

Bears do, and their threatened status helped justify the purchase of the 11,000-acre Weekiwachee Preserve. Also, of course, it saved the territory of countless other plants and animals, including humans who like to hike, mountain bike or just savor the thought that not every square inch of southwestern Hernando is covered with pavement and Floratam.

So if the delisting recommendation isn't part of the recent, extremist attack on Florida's environment — there is some science behind it, after all — it may have some of the same results: less preserved land, less money for research, more rights for developers and fewer for residents who want to challenge them.

The state's bear management plan will treat each population differently, Telesco said, and will look at ways to increase the range and population of our local bears, officially known as the Chassahowitzka population. And nobody has to worry about bear hunts in the Weekiwachee Preserve, he said. It just won't happen.

Laurie McDonald of the Defenders of Wildlife said her group wants more — a special threatened designation for the Chassahowitzka population.

Exactly how threatened? The main study of these bears, which ran from the late 1990s to 2002, estimated the maximum population at 36, though it was likely smaller. And in 2009 and 2010, researches from the wildlife commission who set baited snares from Aripeka to northern Citrus collected hair samples from 11 different bears.

"We may have missed some, but not many," said Walt McCown, one of the researchers.

There are not only fewer bears; they are more skittish. One of the original study's findings was that through either learned behavior or natural selection, even bears that lived only yards away from human populations avoided interaction with them.

Nuisance complaints among the Chassahowitzka bears are almost unheard of. And unlike the 1940s and 1950s, when longtime Aripeka resident Wayne Norfleet was growing up, it's rare to even see one.

When he read the story of the resurgence in the bear population, he said, "My immediate reaction was: It might be that way somewhere else. Not here."

Local bear population needs protection 05/19/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 19, 2011 8:10pm]
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